The New York Times and National Security Secrets: Obama vs. Bush

News that the New York Times and Washington Post kept secret until recently the secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia is once again raising questions on the paper's politicized double standards on keeping state secrets related to the war on terror.

Contrast the deference paid to the Obama administration's request for secrecy, going along with the national security arguments advanced by Obama (until Wednesday's expose of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, Obama's choice to head the CIA) with how the paper routinely leaked secrets during the Bush administration that may have hurt anti-terrorist programs.

Here are just some of the national security low-lights and double standards Times Watch has documented at the Times over the years.


*** In December 2005, Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposed the National Security Agency's monitoring of communications between people in America and terror suspects overseas, which many say hurt the anti-terrorist program – a program the Times constantly, misleadingly referring to as "domestic eavesdropping."

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas accused the paper of (as the Associated Press put it), "endangering American security to sell a book by waiting until the day of the terror-fighting Patriot Act reauthorization to report that the government has eavesdropped on people without court-approved warrants." Cornyn was referring to the then-unreleased book by James Risen, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush administration." The Times didn't mention the book deal.


*** Even more controversially, in June 2006, the Times exposed another classified surveillance program, involving the surveillance of international bank transfers to spot terrorists. "Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror," read the headline over the story by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen --the same tag team that wrecked the previous anti-terror program.

The Times ignored personal pleas from the White House (how Times have changed): "Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counter-terrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials."

Reaction was fiercely negative from all sides. When the heat refused to die, Executive Editor Bill Keller went on the sympathetic liberal talk show circuit to make his case. Talking as if he was executive of a nation, not a newspaper, he explained to CBS's Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation how he judges whether a national security secret is worth exposing. Separately, reporter Eric Lichtlbau ludicrously suggested that the program was not in fact a secret. (So why did the headline read "Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror"?)


*** Skipping ahead to June 2008, the Times' Scott Shane identified the CIA interrogator who extracted valuable information from 9-11 terrorist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, marring his lead story, "Inside the Interrogation Of a 9/11 Mastermind." Shane's main subject was Deuce Martinez, the C.I.A. interrogator who extracted valuable information from KSM in a secret C.I.A. prison in Poland. Shane talked to current and former intelligence officials about the long road that led to KSM's capture, but not to the interrogator himself, who declined to be interviewed and asked that the Times not release his name.


*** In 2010 and 2011 the Times (among other papers) ran with Wikileaks data stolen from the U.S. government. Executive Editor Bill Keller's 8,000-word New York Times Magazine cover story in February 2011 on WikiLeaks founder and anti-social anti-American Julian Assange was a guide to the events leading up to the Times' publishing over several months of batches from the archive of secret government data hoarded by Wikileaks.

(The Times had previously published in November 2010 secret and sensitive embassy cables revealing candid talk behind the scenes of U.S. diplomacy in hot spots around the world.)

Keller proudly defended his paper's participation in Assange's attempt to undermine confidence in the United States. And Keller clearly preferred working with Obama over the Bush White House:

The tension between a newspaper's obligation to inform and the government's responsibility to protect is hardly new. At least until this year, nothing The Times did on my watch caused nearly so much agitation as two articles we published about tactics employed by the Bush administration after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first, which was published in 2005 and won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on domestic phone conversations and e-mail without the legal courtesy of a warrant. The other, published in 2006, described a vast Treasury Department program to screen international banking records.

I have vivid memories of sitting in the Oval Office as President George W. Bush tried to persuade me and the paper's publisher to withhold the eavesdropping story, saying that if we published it, we should share the blame for the next terrorist attack. We were unconvinced by his argument and published the story, and the reaction from the government - and conservative commentators in particular - was vociferous.

This time around, the Obama administration's reaction was different. It was, for the most part, sober and professional. The Obama White House, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making the documents public, did not seek an injunction to halt publication. There was no Oval Office lecture....


*** And in the summer of 2012, the paper came under from both parties for publishing sensitive national security information that served to bolster Obama's image as a tough-on-terror leader. The Obama administration, which has aggressively prosecuted leakers sometimes, seemed eager to spill some selective beans if it might help the president.

The Times obliged. A May 29, 2012 front-page story showcased the president personally choosing targets (the "kill list") of drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Yemen and Pakistan. A June 1, 2012 piece based on a book by foreign policy correspondent David Sanger, displayed Obama ordering the STUXNET cyber attack on Iran's nuclear program.

MRC's Rich Noyes made some striking findings about the Obama insiders that the Times used as sources, and concluded: "92% of the source identifications in those two stories of past or present Obama officials. Looking at just the descriptions used by the three Times reporters, it is impossible to believe that these stories were not deeply facilitated by the top echelons of President Obama’s national security team."