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July 08, 2008

NYTimesWatch: Bill Keller, The Decider

Many moons ago, the Editorial Staff brought the assembled villainry the riveting tale of one Bill Keller, Unitary Editor:

In the Times' estimation, the outing of a single "covert" agent is a dangerous national security breach requiring a special prosecutor; even when the charging statute is one the Times itself held to be unconstitutional when it was passed. The outing of entire classified anti-terror programs, on the other hand, is not only safe, but serves the public good!

"How can this be?", you may be asking yourself. The answer is simple. Bill Keller is a Very Smart Man - so smart that he can be trusted to make major national security decisions without any oversight. He has formulated the Theory of the Unitary Editor, which goes something like this. On the first day of the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers created the New York Times. And they looked upon their creation, and they saw that it was good. And they clearly intended for it to have a tremendous amount of power for, as our Democrat brethren-in-Christ are always reminding us, Thomas Jefferson said it would be better to have a press and no government, didn't he? So on the second day the Framers, via the First Amendment, explicitly created a Fourth Branch of government which operates completely independently of the other three branches. Furthermore, unlike the other three branches, this fourth branch was to be able to violate laws passed by our elected representatives at any time with impunity, since the First Amendment would operate as a virtual trump or "get out of jail free" card.

Now this may alarm some of you somewhat, but you should not worry. We the Little People should simply trust that the Times would never abuse this tremendous power, because although the press are not subject to any external oversight or checks and balances, the Founders did provide for an entirely sufficient internal oversight system in the form of Executive Editors. This is where the Theory of the Unitary Editor comes in.

According to the Theory of the Unitary Editor, whenever a Times reporter is given unauthorized classified information, Bill Keller's editorial conscience allows him to unilaterally declassify national secrets, bypass Congress, and violate the law in the interest of keeping the nation safe from a popularly elected President who he fears may be unilaterally declassifying national secrets, bypassing Congress, and breaking the law.

Conveeeeenient, no es verdad? It is good to be King.

Because when you're The Decider, rules are (apparently) for other people:

New York Times Public Editor, a.k.a. ombudsman, Clark Hoyt devoted a long column yesterday to, essentially, defending his employer’s decision to publish the name of the CIA interrogator who got Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to talk. Hoyt endorses the Times’s conclusion that it was somehow in the public interest to learn Deuce Martinez’s name, despite the pleas of Martinez himself and CIA Director Michael Hayden not to publish it–and despite the experience of another CIA operative who had gone public after interrogating another Al Qaeda big shot:

When I asked [John] Kiriakou for full details about his experience, he said he received more than a dozen death threats, many of them crank. His house was put under police guard and he took his family to Mexico for two weeks after the C.I.A. advised him to get out of town for a while. He said he lost his job with a major accounting firm because executives expressed fear that Al Qaeda could attack its offices to get him, though Kiriakou considered that fear unreasonable.

Interestingly enough, back in 2003 the Times' own Nicholas Kristoff dismissed the idea that "outing" Valerie Plame had placed her life in danger:

Mrs. Wilson's intelligence connections became known a bit in Washington as she rose in the C.I.A. and moved to State Department cover, but her job remained a closely held secret. Even her classmates in the C.I.A.'s career training program mostly knew her only as Valerie P. That way, if one spook defected, the damage would be limited.

All in all, I think the Democrats are engaging in hyperbole when they describe the White House as having put Mrs. Wilson's life in danger and destroyed her career; her days skulking along the back alleys of cities like Beirut and Algiers were already mostly over.

Moreover, the Democrats cheapen the debate with calls, at the very beginning of the process, for a special counsel to investigate the White House. Hillary Rodham Clinton knows better than anyone how destructive and distracting a special counsel investigation can be, interfering with the basic task of governing, and it's sad to see her display the same pusillanimous partisanship that Republicans showed just a few years ago.

Still, Kristoff acknowledged that needlessly identifying CIA employees was both reckless and wrong. After all, he noted huffily, professional journalists would never violate the public trust just to get a scoop:

We in journalism are also wrong, I think, to extend professional courtesy to Robert Novak, by looking beyond him to the leaker. True, he says he didn't think anyone would be endangered. Working abroad in ugly corners of the world, American journalists often learn the identities of American C.I.A. officers, but we never publish their names. I find Mr. Novak's decision to do so just as inexcusable as the decision of administration officials to leak it.

No, the Times would never leak the names of covert agents.

Because unlike partisan politicians, professional journalists can be trusted to protect classified information. After all, they have a code of ethics that takes the rights of sources into account:

Often, the only people who are truly authorized to speak for attribution are paid spokesman, who merely parrot the official line. Their remarks are usually included in news stories, but to leave their statements unchallenged by other sources who are as knowledgeable but not officially designated to speak in public, would mean that our journalists were not giving readers a full picture of the truth. Many sources now fear that their supervisor will see unsanctioned remarks in the press, even statements that don't seem at first blush to be either negative or controversial, especially when every public utterance is quickly picked up and can ricochet across the Internet. So some unofficial but still credible sources ask to withhold their names to avoid getting into trouble. Perhaps this is, as you note, unwholesome. Again, our main concern is not whether a source is wholesome or unwholesome, but whether he/she is credible and whether the information from the source is important to getting the full story.

So it is perfectly ethical to use an anonymous source who speaks off the record because he has agreed as part of the terms of his employment not to speak to reporters. Such a person, though he is breaking his word by speaking off the record, is nonetheless, "credible".

On the other hand disclosing the identity of a source known to the editors who requested anonymity because he fears for the safety of his family is highly ethical. After all - why should he need anonymity? He spoke to the Times with the knowledge and consent of his employers! Therefore, his credibility is not at issue!

But there is a far more serious problem than tawdry concerns about life, death, or even national security: that of the Times' street cred. Though the Times commonly redacts the identities of other anonymous sources for far less serious reasons, hard times require hard decisions:

I can assure you, Mark, that I often put myself in the source's shoes, as do my colleagues here. The source has the right to set the terms of any dialogue with a reporter. And those terms are best set at the beginning of any conversation, where the terms "off the record," "on background," "not for attribution," and the like are discussed. The reporter, of course, is free to reject the terms and end the conversation, or the reporter can ask for a halt in order to consult an editor on whether restrictive sourcing terms are worth the value of the information or quote for a story. The source is, naturally, also free to reject terms and not be interviewed.

You are correct that there is usually an assumption that conversations between reporters and sources are on the record and for attribution unless the source otherwise states, preferably at the beginning of any interview or by placing some observations on different terms as the interview progresses. I've had a few experinces where a source, realiziing his quotes may be controversial, asks, retroactively, if the entire interview can be considered "not for attribution." Usually, I have negotiated to keep some of the material for attribution. Occasionally, I have been convinced that a source could face retribution and unless the interview is of paramount importance, I agree not to use the source's name.

What is important to realize here is what is "of paramount importance" to the NY Times.

If there was any doubt in anyone's mind, it is not the safety of CIA agents. The staff of the Times feels uniquely qualified to judge these matters, just as it has several times felt uniquely qualified to bypass the Congressional oversight committees on intelligence and unilaterally and illegally publish classified documents. The Times does not need a shield law.

It is a law unto itself.

Posted by Cassandra at July 8, 2008 07:52 AM

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I can assure you, Mark, that I often put myself in the source's shoes...

...because it's a lot more comfy for me to do it *then* than to put myself in his coffin after the interview is published.

Posted by: BillT at July 8, 2008 09:54 AM

Should some future terrorist ever decide it is a good idea to drive an airplane into a building in New York City, is it too much to ask for The Times Tower with the nose to enter the outside wall of Keller's office?

Posted by: vanderleun at July 8, 2008 12:21 PM

You know, I like the way you think :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 8, 2008 12:43 PM

Everybody wants to be the next Bob Woodward.

Posted by: DensityDuck at November 5, 2008 03:06 PM