NPR's Jason Beaubien just returned from Sierra Leone, which along with Guinea and Liberia is suffering from the worst ever Ebola outbreak.
On the 2004 campaign trail, President Bush denied the existence of an American warrantless surveillance program. But inside the Department of Justice, an attorney leaked information to The New York Times explaining the National Security Agency did indeed eavesdrop on phones around the country.
The New York Times sat on the story for a year, and couldn’t decide what to say in order to explain the delay. This week there’s new information out on that story. NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss these developments.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And a Frontline documentary that aired last night is getting a lot of attention today, because of what it confirmed about what The New York Times did with sensitive government information back in 2004 and '05. The information had to do with the NSA secret program to eavesdrop on Americans here at home without warrants, in the name of fighting terrorism. This was pre-Edward Snowden. The New York Times had held the story at the request of the government. And there are new details from Frontline about what exactly was going on behind the scenes.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering this story. In fact, he's been covering it all the way back to when it first started, back 10 years ago. And he's with us now from New York.
David, let's set the scene a bit more. Remind us about what this story is all about. Back in 2004, what did The Times know and what did they report or not report?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, so in fall of 2004, in fact, in October, Bill Keller, the executive editor then of The New York Times, was shown draft of articles written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau documenting a program run by the NSA - which is supposed to do, you know, surveillance abroad had been - and that it had been conducting widespread eavesdropping on Americans here domestically, in seeming violation of the law and the Constitution.
A bunch of editors were brought in fro briefings by, you know, government officials saying: My God, you cannot go with this story - you'll have blood on your hands. Finally, Bill Keller is brought in to the White House to talk to very senior officials there. And he decides not to publish. He ultimately decides that the warnings are so stark, are so dire, so strident that he takes their warnings very seriously, and doesn't publish the story until December or 2005.
HOBSON: Well, and just so we can hear some of the people who were involved back then at the time, let's listen to a little clip from the Frontline documentary which was called "United States of Secrets." This is Thomas Tamm, an attorney at the Justice Department, who explains how he initially had leaked the story to The Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau.
THOMAS TAMM: I eventually told him my suspicions that a very, very limited people knew what it was all about. And that, really, some very experienced high-level lawyers thought what the government was doing was illegal.
HOBSON: So, as you say, The Times held off on publishing the story. But the journalists, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, were pushing their bosses to move on it. Here they are talking about that part of the story.
JAMES RISEN: The editors were furious at me. They thought I was being insubordinate.
ERIC LICHTBLAU: He had a gun to their head. They are really being forced to reconsider: the paper is going to look pretty bad.
RISEN: That led to this massive game of chicken between me, my book - me my book and The New York Times over the next few months.
HOBSON: So, David Folkenflik, what did we learn last night in this documentary about what was going on?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, the gun to the head that was being talked about there was that James Risen had decided that he wanted to get that story into print, one way or another. And he was going to write a book to do so. And it would have been, you know, in the words of one of Risen's colleagues to me in speaking about this, it would have been catastrophic for The New York Times had this secret, clandestine program of widespread domestic - and possibly illegal - eavesdropping by the NSA been revealed by a The New York Times reporter and not in The New York Times.
FOLKENFLIK: People would ask: Well, what is it doing as a watchdog when. And, fact, you know, Bill Keller said time and again to me and to others, that this was a story that just wasn't ready yet. That the additional months of reporting had really made the story much stronger and the sourcing much better. But what Risen and Lichtblau felt - and their editor Rebecca Corbett felt and had argued unsuccessfully, prior to the decision by Risen to publish a book - was that they had enough to go on. That they had enough of the core of the story to be able to set it out for people.
HOBSON: So all the while, while they're having this debate within The Times, of course, the White House is saying don't publish, don't publish. Why would they not listen to those concerns?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, these are very serious concerns. And it's worth taking listeners back to the moment that we're talking about. When Keller goes to the White House in 2004, you know, it's only a little over three years after 9/11. They're being told that there may be blood on The Times' hands if they publish this story. And Keller is essentially driving without a roadmap and without GPS, without headlights at night. It's very, very serious stuff being talked about here.
At the same time, it's also only a little more than 12 months that The Times and others have had to come to terms with the fact that what they had been told, and what they had published on their front pages about weapons of mass destruction - largely on the basis of what senior, you know, administration officials and intelligence officials had told them - had been entirely wrong.
And the idea that they're placing that much trust and authority, even as they have their own sources telling them some pretty important and compelling things that the public really needed to know to understand what the government was doing in its name, well, Keller(ph) at that moment blinked.
And in saying that the story wasn't ready yet in 2004 and - until December 2005 belies the facts in the timeline, which is that the Times never then said to its reporters, well, you go out and take the months you need to get this in print. Once Risen had a contract, once that publisher had announced that his story was going to be published in a book form in January of 2006, the Times got very serious, front page story by Lichtblau and Risen on its front pages in December of 2005.
HOBSON: And we also heard in this documentary last night on "Frontline" how the New York Times' handling of this story was part of Edward Snowden's motivation to leak the NSA documents later. Here's Ewen MacAskill, a journalist from The Guardian, talking about Snowden.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EWEN MACASKILL: Snowden was disgusted at the New York Times for, you know, having that story before the election, sitting on it for month after month, and he had a real antipathy toward the New York Times as a result of the way they'd behaved over Risen.
HOBSON: How, David Folkenflik, did what happened back then impact what happened with Edward Snowden and the release of the documents?
FOLKENFLIK: It had everything to do with it. Snowden decided to go to Barton Gellman, who had done a lot of reporting on Dick Cheney, the vice president of course under President George W. Bush, and the intelligence forces there. And he also went of course to Glenn Greenwald, who teamed up with The Guardian to do their reporting. The Post and The Guardian shared in a Pulitzer this spring as - subsequent of their work there.
But Snowden felt that in the moment that the New York Times had showed that it would blink and defer to authority, to what he sees as the national security state, when confronted with a decision on whether to publish something so dire, and I think this underscores, you know, why this matters.
I mean, this is a story that occurred, call it, you know, 2004. It played out in public eyes in 2005. But I think that, you know, it is a signal moment at which the watchdog, the nation's most - perhaps most impressive journalistic outlet, when confronted by White House officials at the very top level, you know, does ultimately blink a little bit, does ultimately defer to authority because it's so hard to believe what they're being told by their own sources.
HOBSON: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, joining us from New York. And you can find a link to the "Frontline" documentary "United States of Secrets" at our website, hereandnow.org. You can also see some of David's previous reporting on this story, going back quite some time now. David, thanks so much as always.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.