How the New York Times Won 2004 for Bush

Should the news media be patriotic? When a journalist uncovers a government secret, which comes first–national security or the public’s right to know?

In the United States, reporters consider themselves Americans first, journalists second. That means consulting the government before going public with a state secret. “When I was at ABC,” James Bamford told Time in 2006, “we always checked with the Administration in power when we thought we had something of concern, and there was usually some way to work it out.”

In a new book about the Bush Administration’s efforts to expand the president’s powers at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches, the assumption that the press shouldn’t publish security-sensitive stories is so hard-wired that New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau accepts it as a given. But it’s a very American concept, and one that relies on the presumption that the U.S. government may make mistakes, but is largely a force for good. In other countries, the relationship between rulers and the press is strictly adversarial.

In “Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice” Lichtblau unwittingly relates a depressing parable–his seeming obliviousness to conflict of interest is a bummer–describing the nation’s most prominent newspaper’s willingness to keep secrets for government officials, who turn out to be (shocker alert–>) lying. It’s a cautionary tale about journalistic nationalism, one of many (Judith Miller, anyone?) in which the Times transformed itself into Bush’s political slut.

A whore, at least, would have demanded money.

In 2004 Lichtblau and fellow Times reporter Jim Risen learned that the National Security Agency was spying domestically, on American citizens. The NSA, which uses sophisticated voice-recognition software and computer programs to intercept phone calls, fax transmissions, e-mail and even bank wire transfers, was supposed to limit its activities to foreign countries. Illegally expanding beyond its Congressionally-authorized mandate, Lichtblau writes, “the NSA had essentially gained access to the biggest telecom ‘switches’ in the country, using the agency’s data-mining technology to comb the huge trunks carrying massive volumes of traffic, in order to zero in on suspected dirty numbers and eavesdrop on them without warrants.”

It was a big story. Or it would have been, had the newspaper chosen to run it when it learned of it.

Naturally, it triggered alarms in official Washington when another Times reporter called the NSA for comment. Soon the agency’s director, General Michael Hayden, was calling the Times, asking it to censor itself. “Don’t run this story,” Administration honchos begged.

“The Times,” Lichtblau says, “had been through many contretemps in its long history over whether or not to publish newsworthy stories involving sensitive national security information and, despite the vitriolic charges from its critics, it was never a decision the paper made with reckless abandon. In more than a few cases, it has decided not to publish anything at all.”


For over a year, Lichtblau explains in an apparent attempt to justify himself and his employer to conservative critics, Times editors and reporters met repeatedly with White House officials to ask them why they shouldn’t spill the beans on the NSA’s domestic spying operation. That the program was illegal was pretty obvious. (Congress acknowledged as much by later voting to retroactively legalize it.) So was the lameness of the government’s argument against making the NSA’s activities public.

Declaring the Bush Administration “unpersuasive,” Lichtblau said: “To me, it was never clear what Osama bin Laden and his henchmen would learn–confirming, really–that the United States spy services were listening to them.” But the White House kept calling meetings, playing for time. Meanwhile, every morning, the Times came out without important news that its readers would care about–that their phone calls and e-mails were being monitored.

“Bush and ten senior advisors in the White House and the intelligence community would make personal pleas not to run the story in a series of meetings spanning 14 months, beginning in October of 2004 weeks before the presidential election,” Lichtblau says.
Weeks before the presidential election. You’d think the timing of the Administration’s pleas for self-censorship might have tipped off the Times’ editors that they were being used in order to ensure that Bush and the Republican Party won the election. Moreover, Lichtblau wrote, “We had reason to suspect that the White House was actively misleading us and that its impassioned pleas might have less to do with concern over national security harm than with the legal and political fallout that the story might trigger.” Gee, you think? And yet the paper’s editors refused to print it.

The Bush Administration, he argues, “had not yet suffered the kind of crippling body blows to its credibility that it would [by late 2005].” Yeah, well, not really.
Remember, this was late 2004. The U.S. had invaded Iraq in March 2003, a year and a half earlier, but the WMDs had never turned up. The paper’s own editorial page had been ranting on and on about the Administration’s perfidy. Credibility? What credibility? Besides, it wasn’t as if Bush was the first First Fibber. All presidents are serial liars. So are their subordinates. Why would the Times, or anyone else, believe them about anything?

As I read on, I kept thinking about an exchange I’d had with a fellow American reporter in Afghanistan in 2001. “Are you going to the press conference?” he asked me. A local warlord, part of the incoming Karzai regime, was about to give an update on the battle for Kunduz. “What for?” I asked him. “To get news,” he replied. “A press conference,” I shot back, “is the one place where you’re guaranteed not to learn anything. It is a vacuum-packed, perfectly news-free zone.” I spent the morning at the bazaar interviewing refugees, figuring they had less reason to lie than the Afghan official.

Anyway, the internal debate over whether to run the NSA domestic surveillance story came to an end in December 2005. Lichtblau, Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman and executive editor Bill Keller went to the White House, where they met with Condi Rice, General Hayden and a few other characters whom, if there’s any justice, will soon be in prison. This was followed by another rendezvous between the Big Dog himself, George W. Bush, and Taubman, Keller, and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. (Despite the obvious conflict of interest–readers who pay newspapers for the truth vs. government officials paid to lie–there’s no evidence that they considered refusing these meetings.) Deciding that they had been played long enough, Sulzberger and his lieutenants green-lit the piece.

By then, of course, Bush had won a second term. To some extent, he owed his victory to the “liberal” New York Times more than to Karl Rove. The Times, Extra! Magazine reported later, had also sat on another late-breaking “October Surprise” story that might have caused enough voters to change their minds to vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. That suspicious rectangular bulge in Bush’s jacket during his debate with Kerry, a NASA scientist who is an expert on such things had told the Times, was indeed an electronic transmitter that allowed Bush to receive remote coaching from Rove or someone else.

“A Times journalist, who said that Times staffers were ‘pretty upset’ about the killing of the story, claims the senior editors felt [it] was ‘too close’ to the election to run such a piece,” reported Extra!.

The government doesn’t tell the truth to reporters, even on “background.” Why shouldn’t the media tell the truth to the American people?


11 Responses to “”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    And Editors wonder why readership is down. Unless you subscribe to Faux News (where you get what you want to hear). You can’t get the truth from a local or even a national news paper.

  2. Aggie Dude Says:

    But Ted,

    I grew up being pounded on a routine basis about how liberally bias our news media is…how they always favor democrats and liberals, the same way communists, terrorist and the French do…..not to mention all those darkies in the world.

    When I got to college I was told I was being brainwashed by communist professors, and that I was naively misled.

    But you say this is not so? *sigh* who am I to believe? You’re just one person, ‘they’ are many!

  3. woodywoodman Says:

    This may sound like crazy talk, but it is as plausible an explaination as I can think of.

    George W. Bush possibly is wearing a medical device for “persons at risk of cardiac arrest.” It is a LifeVest wearable defibrillator. He started using it sometime after his January 2002 fainting spell, which was attributed to choking. Based on photos showing him wearing the device, one can conclude the fainting was due to atrial fibrillation (AF), which his father also had. His father’s AF was caused by Graves’ hyperthyroidism, which his mother also has. Bush likely has AF and less likely Graves’, based on his family history and symptoms. The AF may have caused a stroke or TIA (mini-stroke), of which physicians watching the debates detected symptoms. Observers have noted psychological symptoms consistent with this and with Wernicke-Korsakoff disease.

    Liberated from

  4. Angelo Says:

    woody is a better reporter than most.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Of course, it’s all speculation, you know, the box in Bush’s back and the symptoms of some disease or disorder. What we CAN see, and HAVE seen, the past seven years, is a Big Man on Campus with a huge set of keys to everything on his belt, followed by a gang of wasted-talent carpetbaggers and ideologue sellouts who are intent on destroying the USA for their personal gain. George W. Bush IS the moron we see. He hasn’t used the codes to our nuclear arsenal, because it wouldn’t be profitable. He and his BASE need to keep wars going. There’s no mystery for people who have had their eyes and ears open since the first time Dick Cheney, next to an open mike, called a reporter a “major league asshole.” What we see immediately before us today is the cumulative result of seven years-plus of George W. Bush, basically an empty shell with cheerleading experience (a la Ronald Reagan, who had Nancy tell him what political party to belong to), predictably destroying everything in his path, while a spineless Congress and a fatally compromised Supreme Court bring us back to the happiness we experienced during the Vietnam War and, for the Supreme Court, the Dark Ages. We are, indeed, at the tip of that crumbling cliff, lubricated by the mountain of shit that has flowed downhill from the White House since DAY ONE of the George W. Bush hijacking of the Presidency. Don’t fight it. The Bush administration isn’t yet done humping our collective leg. They will let us know when they have finished, and don’t expect a towel, much less a clean one.

  6. The Reverend Mr. Smith Says:

    Everything’s relative, I guess. To listen to right-wing radio, you’d think the NYT is owned by Mother Jones. This country is so fucked.

    Obama/Webb 2008! (Jim Webb from my home Commonwealth is his best bet, in my latest opinion. Ex-Marine, ex-Reagan employee, gun toter, union guy, and he beat Macaca in VA which is no small feat, where he was an absurdly popular governor. I know, I lived there under him. It was tragicomic to go from Doug Wilder, who I’ve met and is a solid good guy, to George Allen, who convinced me to leave the state.)

  7. AR Says:

    I’m not a frequent commenter, so let me preface the below by saying it’s all well-intentioned, and that I’m a long-time fan of your written and drawn output.

    I think you’re right about the main points, mostly that the Times screwed up big time. However, as to the device/non-device that was/wasn’t on Bush’s back, I have to doubt whether the opinion of the NASA expert who saw images of the debate is any more persuasive than Bill Frist (MD!) deciding that Terry Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state. Although I love your cartoon version of him, I think Bush can actually control his mouth on his own (except when eating pretzels, apparently).

    Also, your anecdote from Afghanistan seems out of place. I understand that the anecdote is about the other journalist, not you, but the fact that journalists go to press conferences, and even expect to learn things there, is not that surprising. Though I imagine it wasn’t intended this way, it came off more as an opportunity for you to gloat about your own journalistic integrity.

    All of that said, keep up the good work, and I’ll keep trying to get my local shitty alternative news weekly to pick you up…

  8. Anonymous Says:

    The NYT and the rest of the MSM are
    nothing but mouth-pieces for big
    Business/Money corpoate class which select the presidents and congress and the Supreme court judges. They lie and
    falsify and conceal some news all
    the time and bullshit the public 24/7.
    So, what is the big deal about a single episode. Ha. It is like they
    are always honest and just slipped
    this time. Ha again.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I’m bored with all the big words you used. Who reads the NY Tim’s ennywayz.

    -American High School Graduate.

  10. JHC Says:

    I’m not sure about the idea that Bush was wearing a medical device, since it seems like he’d be seen wearing it more often. I remember that the hidden transmitter idea was lent credence when during one debate Bush suddenly said “Let me finish” even though no one had interrupted him, or at least no one who could be heard by anyone else.

    The funny thing is that Bush would probably be remembered more positively if he had lost the election. He barely won, and immediately afterwards his popularity began to drop like a rock, and it’s still dropping today. If he’d lost, his supporters would be able to point to his inflated post-9/11 popularity rating and say he did his best to protect America. Then they could blame all the problems in Iraq directly on President Kerry, and say things would have been different if Bush was still in charge. Of course, no matter how he would’ve been remembered, it still would’ve been better to have gotten rid of him in 2004.

  11. Angelo Says:

    ar, I took the anecdote as an illustration that reporting is not rocket science. Even a silly cartoonist understands that press conferences are not news.

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