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Why Times Ran Wiretap Story, Defying Bush
NY Times
By Gabriel Sherman
December 26, 2005 edition

On the afternoon of Dec. 15, New York Times executives put the paper's preferred First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, on standby. In the pipeline for the next day's paper was a story that President George W. Bush had specifically asked the paper not to run, revealing that the National Security Agency had been wiretapping Americans without using warrants.

The President had made the request in person, nine days before, in an Oval Office meeting with publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., executive editor Bill Keller and Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman, according to Times sources familiar with the meeting.

That Dec. 6 session with Mr. Bush was the culmination of a 14-month struggle between The Times and the White House—and a parallel struggle behind the scenes at The Times—over the wiretapping story. In the end, Mr. Abrams' services were not needed. The piece made it to press without further incident.

But the story, which began with reporter James Risen and was eventually written by Mr. Risen and Eric Lichtblau, very nearly didn't reach that endgame at all. In one paragraph, the piece disclosed that the White House had objected to the article—"arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations"—and that The Times had "delayed publication for a year."

In fact, multiple Times sources said that the story had come up more than a year ago—specifically, before the 2004 election. After The Times decided not to publish it at that time, Mr. Risen went away on book leave, and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source.

"I'm not going to talk about the back story to the story," Mr. Keller said by phone on Dec. 20. "Maybe another time and another subject."

The direct executive-branch involvement echoed a legendary—and notorious— episode in Times history, when then–Washington bureau chief James (Scotty) Reston and publisher Orvil Dryfoos, acceding to official pressure, quashed coverage of the specifics of the impending Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The infighting over that decision (and the obvious fallout from it) led to one of the paper's first-ever episodes of public self-criticism.

But in this case, discussion of the Dec. 16 wiretap piece has been off-limits since it was published. "Someone on high told reporters not to talk about it," a Washington bureau source said.

So The Times, after a year of being battered by scoops from competitors like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times on national-security stories, has a blockbuster of its own—but has to discuss it sotto voce, if at all.

The paper made one apparent comment on its interactions with the White House: The day the wiretap story appeared, editors assigned reporter Scott Shane to write a next-day piece about the Bush administration's overextension of executive power.

Through a spokesperson, Mr. Sulzberger declined to comment. Managing editor Jill Abramson, Mr. Taubman, Mr. Risen and Mr. Lichtblau all declined to comment.

Mr. Risen has had difficulties in the past getting traction with Times editors on a disputed topic. In fall 2003, he unsuccessfully pressed for more skeptical coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, to counterbalance the work of Judith Miller.

Mr. Risen returned from his book leave in June of 2005. He soon began agitating to revive the wiretapping piece and get it into the paper, according to bureau sources.

According to multiple Times sources, the decision to move forward with the story was accelerated by the forthcoming publication of Mr. Risen's book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

By this past fall, according to a source familiar with the matter, Mr. Taubman was in a parallel series of discussions: with senior Bush administration officials over the paper's desire to publish the story, and with Mr. Risen over the content of the book.

Mr. Risen's book is due out Jan. 16. The link between the timing of the book and the piece was reported by the Drudge Report the day the wiretap piece came out, with the implication that there was a promotional tie-in involved. On Dec. 20, the Los Angeles Times reported the connection and noted that the original story had predated last year's election. That same morning, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote an online piece revealing The Times' summit with the President.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Keller dismissed the role of Mr. Risen's book and a variety of other factors in determining when the piece would run: "The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim's forthcoming book or any other event. We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the Administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it."

But Times sources said that Mr. Risen's book does include the revelation about the secret N.S.A. surveillance program. That left Mr. Taubman and his superiors in the position of having to resolve The Times' dispute with the administration before Mr. Risen could moot their legal and ethical concerns—and scoop his own paper.

The Free Press, Mr. Risen's publisher, is not circulating galleys or otherwise making the content available before the book goes on sale. "We're not giving any comments about the content of the book until the book comes out next month," a Free Press spokesperson said.