The NYT’s Favor and Fear

Exclusive: A federal court opinion has revealed that the New York Times’s 2004 spiking of the story about President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans didn’t stand alone. A year earlier, the Times bowed to another White House demand to kill a sensitive story, one about Iran’s nuclear program, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

June 30, 2011

The New York Times, like most U.S. newspapers, prides itself on its “objectivity.” The Times even boasts about printing news “without fear or favor.” But the reality is quite different, with the Times agreeing – especially last decade – to withhold newsworthy information that the Bush-43 administration considered too sensitive.

A new example of this pattern was buried in a Times article on Wednesday about a subpoena issued to Times reporter James Risen regarding his receipt of a leak about an apparently botched U.S. covert operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear research, a disclosure that Risen published in his 2006 book, State of War.

In Wednesday’s article, the Times reported that its news executives agreed in 2003 to kill Risen’s article about the covert operation at the request of George W. Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet.

And, it was not the only time in recent years when the Times bowed to White House pressure to conceal information in response to a claim of national security.

Before the presidential election in 2004, the Times editors had in their hands another Risen story, about Bush’s warrantless wiretaps of Americans, but they spiked it at Bush’s behest, again on national security grounds. The Times only published the wiretap story in December 2005, more than a year later, when it learned that Risen was also including that information in State of War.

The Times executives concluded that it was better to risk the wrath of the White House by publishing the wiretap disclosure than to suffer the embarrassment of getting caught sitting on a very newsworthy story, one that later won the Pulitzer Prize.

But the journalistic point in both these cases is that the Times was not acting “objectively,” concerned only with the facts and the public’s right to know. It was showing, without doubt, “favor” and quite possibly “fear” as well.

Whatever your personal feelings about Iran, the obvious truth is that if the identities of the nations involved in the nuclear-related covert action were reversed, the Times would not have hesitated to expose the treacherous behavior of Iran (in trying to sabotage a U.S. nuclear program). Indeed, the Times would likely have condemned Iran for reckless behavior if not an act of war.

By spiking the story when Iran was the target, the Times showed it was onboard for the White House’s anti-Iran campaign, much as Times executives clambered onto Bush’s bandwagon for war with Iraq. Then, too, the Times let its desire to look “patriotic” and “tough” overwhelm its journalistic principles.

Aluminum-Tube Hoax

Infamously, the Times published a bogus front-page article in 2002 alleging that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes for use in building nuclear centrifuges, when in reality the tubes were not suitable for that purpose.

Nevertheless, the false Times story gave great momentum to Bush’s drive toward an unprovoked invasion of Iraq based on suspicions of secret WMD stockpiles. The aluminum-tube story was cited by national security adviser Rice and other senior officials as a warning that the U.S. must not let “the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud.”

Rice played a role, too, in suppressing Risen’s article about the covert operation to plant dysfunctional designs inside Iran’s nuclear program, an operation that Risen suggests backfired when Iran detected the intentional errors but benefited from the real technology that was included.

This week, in a federal court opinion related to charges against former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling that he leaked word of the Iran operation to Risen, Judge Leonie Brinkema wrote that in April 2003, Rice and Tenet met with Risen and then-Times Washington bureau chief Jill Abramson to request that the Times not write about the CIA’s disruptions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Just a month after Bush’s invasion of Iraq – with the President riding high in the polls and the United States awash in patriotic fervor – the Times bowed to the administration’s request.

A similar request was made in 2004 when the White House appealed to the Times to suppress Risen’s story about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans suspected of communicating with terror suspects abroad.

The major difference in the two cases was that the Times reversed itself more than a year later on the wiretap story, after learning that Risen would reveal the secret in his book.

However, the journalistic point remains the same for both instances. The Times was not behaving in an objective or neutral manner. It wasn’t just reporting the news. It was taking sides.

The simple truth is that major U.S. news organizations, including the Times, routinely take sides in favor of U.S. foreign policy and against identified U.S. adversaries. The goal to appear “patriotic” – or at least not “disloyal” – trumps journalistic principles.

‘Good for the Country’

In my three-decades-plus career as a Washington-based journalist, I have seen this reality demonstrated repeatedly at mainstream news organizations where I worked, including the Associated Press and Newsweek. Senior editors often fancied themselves as doing what’s “good for the country” in spinning a story in ways most favorable to the U.S. government, rather than simply writing what presented itself.

Double standards were common. For instance, it was an easy sell to get editors to approve a story accusing Nicaragua’s Sandinista government of drug trafficking (although the evidence was thin to non-existent) but it required a pitched battle (and plenty of solid evidence) to convince editors to go with a story about cocaine smuggling by President Ronald Reagan’s pet Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

The reason was obvious. Even if the allegations against the Sandinistas were completely bogus, there would be no meaningful repercussions for running the story. However, if there was even the slightest flaw in the Contra-cocaine evidence, the consequences would be severe. So, the smart career play was to go with the first accusation and avoid the second.

Other times, there are tough calls about whether to publish U.S. national security secrets – and these can be very difficult decisions. The government will always insist that lives are at stake and will threaten to point the finger of blame if you publish a story and someone gets hurt or killed. Frankly, it’s hard for a reporter to assess exactly what the risks are.

But often the government exaggerates the dangers.

In 1985, I was the first reporter to publicly identify White House aide Oliver North as a key figure in arranging secret (and possibly illegal) support for the Nicaraguan Contras. However, when the Times did a follow-up on my AP story, the newspaper acquiesced to White House demands to leave out North’s name for his safety. The Times story only referred to an unnamed U.S. government official.

That decision to shield North’s identity was probably the safe political play for the Times, rather than join the AP in naming North. The Times editors and reporters surely earned some brownie points with Reagan’s White House and likely drew praise for their “patriotism.”

But the Times decision had consequences for the then-evolving Iran-Contra scandal in which North was a central figure. By excluding his name, the Times, in effect, protected his ability to continue operating outside the law and in the shadows, rather than put him on the spot for his dubious actions.

In the end, the United States and North’s boss, President Reagan, were probably ill served by the Times’s capitulation on naming North. The Iran-Contra scandal, which broke into the open in late 1986, represented the worst national security scandal of Reagan’s presidency and brought the country close to another impeachment battle.

The Lockerbie Bombing

Yet, to this day, the New York Times and other major U.S. news outlets continue to tilt their coverage of foreign policy and national security issues to fit within the general framework laid out by Official Washington. Rarely do mainstream journalists deviate too far.

It has been common, for instance, for the Times and other media outlets to state as flat fact that Libyan agents, presumably on orders from Col. Muammar Gaddafi, blew Pan Am 103 out of the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

However, anyone who has followed that case knows that the 2001 conviction of Libyan operative Ali al-Megrahi by a special Scottish court was highly dubious, more a political compromise than an act of justice. Another Libyan was found not guilty, and one of the Scottish judges told Dartmouth government professor Dirk Vandewalle about “enormous pressure put on the court to get a conviction.”

In 2007, after the testimony of a key witness against Megrahi was discredited, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed to reconsider the conviction as a grave miscarriage of justice. However, that review was proceeding slowly in 2009 when Scottish authorities released Megrahi on humanitarian grounds, after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

Megrahi dropped his appeal in order to gain the early release, but that doesn’t mean he was guilty. He has continued to assert his innocence and an objective press corps would reflect the doubts regarding his curious conviction. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Three Deadly War Myths.”]

After all, the Lockerbie case is not simply a historical mystery. It is one of the central reasons why the United States and its NATO allies are insisting that Gaddafi must be removed from power prior to any negotiated settlement of Libya’s ongoing civil war.

In pressing this need to oust Gaddafi first, President Barack Obama made a reference to the Lockerbie bombing at his Wednesday news conference, a presumed “fact” that may have set the White House correspondents to nodding their heads but may well not be true.

Which brings us to a key problem regarding American journalists siding with U.S. officials in presenting information to the American people: Is it really “good for the country”?

By now, history should have taught us that it is often better for the American people to know what their government is doing than to be left in the dark where they can be led around by clever propagandists, aided and abetted by a complicit news media.

Indeed, when the Times and other U.S. news outlets act in that way, they may be causing more harm than the propaganda organs of a repressive regime would, since the “news” from those government mouthpieces is discounted by those who read and see it.

Back in the 1980s, I had a phone interview with Gen. Edward Lansdale, the famed CIA propagandist and model for a key character in The Ugly American. Lansdale told me that the real trick of propaganda was not to plant stories in an outlet that was known to be controlled (because then a person’s defenses were up), but to get the false information into venues that the public thought to be independent.

That way, Lansdale said, the public’s defenses would be down and the propaganda would be more effective.

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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