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HOW THE NYTIMES IS RINGING IN 2006

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By Michelle Malkin  •  December 31, 2005 10:45 PM

Yes, it’s New Year’s Eve. And since there’s no rest for the NYTimes, I’m not taking it easy tonight either.

You see, NYTimes’ reporter James Risen has been a busy bee over the holidays. The co-author of the infamous Chicken Little opus exposing the NSA special collection program to monitor international communications between suspected al Qaeda operatives and their contacts will be launching his new book, State of War, on January 3.

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Turns out the publisher of Risen’s new book, which includes a discussion of NSA eavesdropping, has moved up the publication date to this coming Tuesday. (It was originally scheduled for release in mid-January.)

NYT ombudsman Byron Calame lets us all know that he’s having trouble getting any information out of his bosses and colleagues:

THE New York Times’s explanation of its decision to report, after what it said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.

For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush’s secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States.

I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future…

…On the larger question of why the eavesdropping article finally appeared when it did, a couple of possibilities intrigue me.

One is that Times editors said they discovered there was more concern inside the government about the eavesdropping than they had initially been told. Mr. Keller’s prepared statements said that “a year ago,” officials “assured senior editors of The Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions.” So the paper “agreed not to publish at that time” and continued reporting.

But in the months that followed, Mr. Keller said, “we developed a fuller picture of the concerns and misgivings that had been expressed during the life of the program” and “it became clear those questions loomed larger within the government than we had previously understood.”

The impact of a new book about intelligence by Mr. Risen on the timing of the article is difficult to gauge. The book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” was not mentioned in the Dec. 16 article. Mr. Keller asserted in the shorter of his two statements that the article wasn’t timed to the forthcoming book, and that “its origins and publication are completely independent of Jim’s book.”

The publication of Mr. Risen’s book, with its discussion of the eavesdropping operation, was scheduled for mid-January – but has now been moved up to Tuesday. Despite Mr. Keller’s distancing of The Times from “State of War,” Mr. Risen’s publisher told me on Dec. 21 that the paper’s Washington bureau chief had talked to her twice in the previous 30 days about the book.

So it seems to me the paper was quite aware that it faced the possibility of being scooped by its own reporter’s book in about four weeks. But the key question remains: To what extent did the book cause top editors to shrug off the concerns that had kept them from publishing the eavesdropping article for months?

A final note: If Mr. Risen’s book or anything else of substance should open any cracks in the stone wall surrounding the handling of the eavesdropping article, I will have my list of 28 questions (35 now, actually) ready to e-mail again to Mr. Keller…

Hey, speaking of transparency, why doesn’t Mr. Calame publish his 35 questions
so the rest of us can see what his bosses refuse to answer?

Contact Calame:

• E-mail: public@nytimes.com
• Phone: (212) 556-7652
• Address: Public Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036-3959

***

Meanwhile, here’s the latest attempt by Risen and NYTimes colleague Eric Lichtblau to portray President Bush as King George, scheduled for Sunday Jan. 1 publication. The online headline and lead paragraph read:

Justice Deputy Resisted Parts of Spy Program

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 – The top deputy to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused two years ago to approve important parts of the secret program that allows domestic eavesdropping without warrants, prompting two leading White House aides to try to win the needed approval from Mr. Ashcroft himself while he was hospitalized after a gall bladder operation, according to officials knowledgeable about the episode.

With Mr. Ashcroft recuperating from gall bladder surgery in March 2004, his deputy, James B. Comey, who was then acting as attorney general, was unwilling to give his certification to crucial aspects of the classified program, as required under the procedures set up by the White House, said the officials, who asked for anonymity because the program is classified and they are not authorized to discuss it publicly…

Nice try at nefarious spin. Two words: Big deal. So, an underling filling in for his boss doesn’t want to sign off on a major, national security decision. Where’s the controversy?

You want to talk about controversy? Where are these continued leaks coming from? Looks like there are blabbermouths inside the Justice Department who seem quite comfy with Risen and Lichtblau. Seems to me this raises some serious conflict-of-interest concerns regarding the DOJ probe of the NSA leaks.

Continuing a bit down in paragraphs 6-8, we learn the real headline news:

It was unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to approve the program or whether the White House moved ahead without his concurrence. What is known is that in early 2004, about the time of the hospital meeting, the White House suspended parts of the surveillance program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the National Security Agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against possible abuses.

The Justice Department’s concerns appear to have led, at least in part, to the suspension, and it was the Justice Department that oversaw an audit conducted on the program.

The audit examined a selection of cases to see how the N.S.A. went about determining that it had probable cause to believe that someone in the United States, including American citizens, had sufficient ties to Al Qaeda to justify the extraordinary step of eavesdropping on their phone calls and e-mail messages without a court warrant. That review is not known to have found any instances of documented abuses.

So, “King George” went to extraordinary lengths to seek the DOJ’s approval, suspended parts of the program to address civil liberties concerns, subjected the program to more stringent NSA requirements, and submitted to an audit that is not known to have found any instances of documented abuses.

Somehow, I doubt this will make it onto the nightly news…or into Arlen Specter’s talking points.

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