Indeed, it appears the information about Bush’s
secret spy order was leaked before Election 2004, but was kept from the
American people because the Bush administration warned Times executives
that the story’s publication might endanger national security.
In finally publishing the story on Dec. 16, more
than 13 months after President Bush won a second term, the Times gave
few details about specifically why it withheld the story in 2004 and
then decided to print it now.
The article stated that “the White House asked The
New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could
jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that
they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration
officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for
a year to conduct additional reporting.”
In the final weeks before Election 2004, Bush
administration officials might have been nervous, too, that the
revelation that Bush had asserted broad presidential authority in
overriding legal constraints on domestic spying could have played into
the hands of Democrat John Kerry. But there is no indication that
political concerns were raised with New York Times executives.
Still, there is an unwritten rule in elite U.S.
journalism that sensitive stories should not be published in the days
before an election so as not to skew the outcome. A countervailing view
holds that newsworthy information should be reported to the American
people whenever a story is ready, regardless of the political calendar.
The Times announcement that it withheld the
electronic spying story for a year comes on the heels of other questions
about the Washington press corps’ alleged subservience to the Bush
administration, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Times reporter Judith Miller resigned Nov. 9, 2005,
amid criticism that she showed a lack of skepticism in stories about
Iraq’s efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb and other weapons of mass
destruction. Senior administration officials had cited Miller’s WMD
stories while making their case for invading Iraq in 2002 and 2003, but
those WMD claims turned out to be untrue.
Miller also resisted a federal subpoena for a year
to protect a source, vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby, who
had told her about the identity of a CIA officer married to an Iraq War
critic. If Miller had agreed to testify before a grand jury earlier, the
information about Libby’s role in the CIA leak case might have come out
before Election 2004, too.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said after
finally securing Miller’s testimony and then Libby’s indictment – on
Oct. 28, 2005 – “I would have wished nothing better that, when the
subpoenas were issued in August 2004, witnesses testified then, and we
would have been here in October 2004 instead of October 2005.”
However, it’s unclear whether a pre-election New
York Times article about Bush stretching his presidential authority to
allow warrant-less electronic spying inside the United States would have
helped or hurt his campaign for a second term.
Some voters might have seen Bush overturning spying
restrictions as a signal that he would do whatever was necessary to
prevent another major terrorist attack. But other voters surely would
have viewed Bush’s assertion of such broad powers as further evidence
that he disdained constitutional protections for the American people.
In its Dec. 16, 2005, article, the Times reported
that in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush signed a secret
executive order authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on
Americans and others inside the United States without court-approved
warrants that are normally required for domestic spying.
The Times reported that under this Bush order, the
NSA monitored the international telephone calls and international
e-mails of hundreds and possibly thousands of people inside the United
States. Officials told the Times that spying on purely domestic
communications still required a warrant from a special federal court
that exists to handle requests for national security wiretaps and
Some NSA officials considered the Bush-authorized
spying program illegal and refused to participate, according to a former
Bush administration official cited by the Times. “Before the 2004
election, the official said, some NSA personnel worried that the program
might come under scrutiny by congressional or criminal investigators if
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected president,” the
It was during that time period when the controversy
over Bush’s order began to surface. “In mid-2004, concerns about the
program expressed by national security officials, government lawyers and
a judge prompted the Bush administration to suspend elements of the
program and revamp it,” the Times reported.
The information also was making its way to some
reporters and a version of the Times story reportedly could have been
published before Election 2004. But it remains unclear how much detail
the extra year of reporting added to the Times article. When finally
published, the story started on Page One and covered a full page inside.
A bigger question for American citizens, however,
may be why leading U.S. news organizations, such as the New York Times
and the Washington Post, seem so committed to advancing the Bush
administration’s foreign-policy agenda – while also protecting its
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com “Rise
of the ‘Patriotic Journalist’.”]