When Bush begged the Times

Yesterday in “Is the Times a law unto itself?” I wrote that President Bush begged then New York Times managing editor Bill Keller not to publish the Pulitzer Prize-winning story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau disclosing the existence of the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP). Bush made his plea at a meeting with Keller, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and then Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman on December 5, 2005. The Times rejected Bush’s plea and posted the story online on December 15, 2005.

Lichtblau recounts a related meeting in a book excerpt posted here. Michael Hayden discusses the TSP and his several meetings with the Times in chapters five and six of his memoir Playing to the Edge. This is how President Bush recalled the December 5 meeting in Decision Points:

“The New York Times is on the surveillance story again,” Steve Hadley told me in December 2005. The previous year, the Times had considered running a story exposing the TSP. Condi and Mike Hayden had talked the paper out of revealing the key elements of the program.

I asked the Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and editor, Bill Keller, to come see me on December 5, 2005. It was a rare request, and I appreciated their willingness to speak face to face. They arrived around 5:00 p.m. Steve Hadley, Andy Card, Mike Hayden, and I greeted them in the Oval Office. We sat by the fireplace beneath the portrait of George Washington. I told them the nation was still in danger, and their newspaper was on the verge of increasing that danger by revealing the TSP in a way that could tip off our enemies. Then I authorized General Hayden to walk them through the program.

Mike is a calming personality. He is not a macho guy who tries to intimidate people with the stars on his shoulders. He talked about his long career in intelligence and his natural suspicion about any program that could result in collecting information on U.S. citizens. He outlined the safeguards in place, the numerous legal reviews, and the results the program had produced.

Mike’s briefing lasted 30 minutes. I watched the Times men closely. They were stony-faced. I told them they could ask Mike any questions they wanted. They didn’t have many. I looked directly at Sulzberger and strongly urged that he withhold the story for national security reasons. He said he would consider my request.

Ten days later, Bill Keller called Steve to say the Times was going forward with the story. We had no chance for a closing argument. [Hayden writes (the emphasis is his): “They had…promised not to go with the story without giving the White House a chance to comment.”] They had posted it on their website before Keller placed the call.

I was disappointed in the Times and angry at whoever had betrayed their country by leaking the story. The Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into the disclosure of classified information. As of the summer of 2010, nobody had been prosecuted.

NOTE: General Hayden adds that Department of Justice lawyer Thomas Tamm, someone not “read into” the program, revealed himself to be a key source for the Times story in December 2008, but “since Justice did not pursue the investigation into the leak, whatever other sources Risen and Lichtblau had remain unknown.”