A backgrounder for Matt Apuzzo

New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo joined the Times in 2012. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, but his article on the testimony of Condoleezza Rice at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling last week suggests he doesn’t know much about the Times.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Rice met with Times editors to persuade them not to publish James Risen’s draft article disclosing the highly classified, Clinton-era CIA program to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Rice and others within the Bush administration believed that Risen’s story would deeply damage the national security of the United States for no discernible public purpose. Rice succeeded in persuading the Times not to run Risen’s story on this particular CIA program; Risen disclosed it in his book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

In his article, Apuzzo presented Rice’s testimony regarding her discussions with Times editors as some kind of revelation. Apuzzo draws on Rice’s testimony to illustrate “how the government pressures journalists to avoid publishing details about United States security affairs. It is a common practice that is seldom discussed.”

Apuzzo appears to be ignorant of the voluminous public discussion occasioned by the publication of the James Risen/Eric Lichtblau story “Bush lets U.S. spy on callers without courts” (December 15, 2005). The following day Times editor Bill Keller released his own statement (December 16, 2005) on the Bush administration’s efforts to persuade the Times to withhold publication of the story. Keller revealed that the Times acceded for a year.

The following day Paul Farhi covered the proceedings in the Washington Post article “At the Times, a scoop deferred” (December 17, 2005). The next week Jay Rosen reviewed the commentary generated to that point in his PresssThink post “I’m not going to talk about the backstory” (December 24, 2005). Times public editor Byron Calame weighed in to greet the new year in “Behind the eavesdropping story, a loud silence” (January 1, 2006). And these items are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Readers with a short memory, or in Apuzzo’s state of unknowing, may be unaware that Keller purported to have satisfied himself that the publication of the story did “not expose any technical intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.” In his December 17, 2005, radio address, however, President Bush flatly asserted that publication of the story “damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.”

Keller must have believed that he was in a better position than Bush to judge the consequences of the story’s publication and perhaps Keller thought the public benefit outweighed the damage to national security. At the time, even Time’s Joe Klein doubted it.

When Risen and Lichtblau returned the following June, this time to to blow the Terror Finance Tracking Program using the SWIFT database, they reported right in the story:

Administration officials…asked The New York Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness. They also enlisted several current and former officials, both Democrat and Republican, to vouch for its value.

Bill Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor, said: “We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”

So there you have it; Keller ruling against the Bush administration’s plea was conclusory, but you get the drift. Who elected Keller and his successors at the Times to make these decisions? You might wonder.

The practice referred to in Apuzzo’s article has been the subject of discussion, most prominently by Times editors themselves. Apuzzo’s article suggests that memories need to be refreshed while Sterling’s trial suggests that the related issues remain timely so long as James Risen et al. are at large.

NOTE: I wrote about the legal issues in the Times’s publication of national security information protected under the Espionage Act in the Weekly Standard column “Exposure,” but Gabriel Schoenfeld owns this story. For a full understanding of what Risen has wrought here I urge interested readers to read Schoenfeld’s Weekly Standard articles “Not every leak is fit to print” (2008), “What gives?” (2010), and “A privileged press?” (2014) as well as Schoenfeld’s Power Line post “A Risen in the sun.”

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