The New York Times, the Intercept and the Spiking of National Security Stories

The New York Times, the Intercept and the Spiking of National Security Stories January 5, 2018

James Risen, a former New York Times reporter who has done some of the most important reporting on national security and intelligence stories of the last few decades, has a very long article at The Intercept about how that paper routinely stopped him from publishing stories that might be embarrassing to the federal government. He was also marched into court by the Obama administration, which tried to force him to give up his sources on some of those stories.

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After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began asking the press to kill stories more frequently. They did it so often that I became convinced the administration was invoking national security to quash stories that were merely politically embarrassing. In late 2002, for instance, I called the CIA for comment on a story about the existence of a secret CIA prison in Thailand that had just been created to house Al Qaeda detainees, including Abu Zubaydah. In response, Bush administration officials called the Times and got the paper to kill the story. I disagreed with the paper’s decision because I believed that the White House was just trying to cover up the fact that the CIA had begun to set up secret prisons. I finally reported the information a year later. (In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program provided new insight into the consequences of the killed Thailand story. “In November 2002, after the CIA learned that a major U.S. newspaper knew that Abu Zubaydah was in Country [redacted], senior CIA officials, as well as Vice President Cheney, urged the newspaper not to publish the information,” the 2014 report states. “While the U.S. newspaper did not reveal Country [redacted] as the location of Abu Zubaydah, the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close Detention Site Green.”)

By 2002, I was also starting to clash with the editors over our coverage of the Bush administration’s claims about pre-war intelligence on Iraq. My stories raising questions about the intelligence, particularly the administration’s claims of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, were being cut, buried, or held out of the paper altogether.

One of the few stories I managed to get on the front page cast doubt on reports that an Iraqi intelligence officer had met with 9/11 plotter Mohamed Atta in Prague before the attacks on New York and Washington. But Doug Frantz, then the investigations editor in New York, felt that he had to sneak it onto Page 1. “Given the atmosphere among the senior editors at The Times, I was concerned that the story would not make it to page 1 on a day when everyone was convened around the table,” Frantz emailed me recently. “So I decided that it was too important to appear inside the paper and went ahead and offered it on a Sunday, a day when the senior editors weren’t often involved in the discussion.”…

After weeks of reporting in late 2002 and early 2003, I was able to get enough material to start writing stories that revealed that intelligence analysts were skeptical of the Bush administration’s evidence for going to war, particularly the administration’s assertions that there were links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda.

But after I filed the first story, it sat in the Times computer system for days, then weeks, untouched by editors. I asked several editors about the story’s status, but no one knew.

Finally, the story ran, but it was badly cut and buried deep inside the paper. I wrote another one, and the same thing happened. I tried to write more, but I started to get the message. It seemed to me that the Times didn’t want these stories.

What angered me most was that while they were burying my skeptical stories, the editors were not only giving banner headlines to stories asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, they were also demanding that I help match stories from other publications about Iraq’s purported WMD programs. I grew so sick of this that when the Washington Post reported that Iraq had turned over nerve gas to terrorists, I refused to try to match the story. One mid-level editor in the Washington bureau yelled at me for my refusal. He came to my desk carrying a golf club while berating me after I told him that the story was bullshit and I wasn’t going to make any calls on it.

This is an important story and it reveals a lot about how decisions are made on what stories to publish. Having been an editor of a news site, I know a lot about that process. There’s a ton of detail in the article and I strongly urge you to read it all. But I also urge you to read this post by Marcy Wheeler, who is one of the most careful reporters on such matters I’ve ever known. She worked for the Intercept but quit in part because they did the same thing to some of her stories that they are now complaining about on the part of the Times. She says Risen’s article is a “must read” and an important story, but she is also calling the site out for ignoring the log in their own eye.

Glenn Greenwald is rightly touting the piece, suggesting that the NYT was corrupt for acceding to the government’s wishes to hold the Stellar Wind story. But in doing so he suggests The Intercept would never do the same.

That’s not correct.

One of two reasons I left The Intercept is because John Cook did not want to publish a story I had written — it was drafted in the content management system — about how the government uses Section 702 to track cyberattacks. Given that The Intercept thinks such stories are newsworthy, I’m breaking my silence now to explain why I left The Intercept.

Her post isn’t as long as Risen’s, but please read the whole thing. I don’t know Risen, but I know Marcy Wheeler and I have tremendous confidence in supporting her on this. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a reporter as diligent, as detailed and as thorough as her. She does her homework, way above and beyond the call of duty, and she does it through the examination of documents rather than by cultivating sources. She is a very rare type of reporter and one of the very best in the country. I take her very seriously on this.

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