In this new era of media transparency, many expected a fuller explanation from The New York Times about why it held its NSA spying scoop for more than a year. What we do know, however, is that editors routinely accede to government demands that they withhold certain information. Scott Armstrong helps facilitate dialogues between intelligence agencies and the media, and talks to Bob about the process.
BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times held its story about secret NSA eavesdropping for more than a year after senior administration officials expressed concerns about national security. The most senior administration official had this to say after the paper ran with the story last week.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: It was a shameful act -- for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war.
BOB GARFIELD: According to Newsweek, President Bush even summoned the Times editor and publisher to the Oval Office before the story went to press. Scott Armstrong is the current co-chair of a dialog between intelligence agencies and the media. He joins us now. Scott, welcome back.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Hey, Bob, how are you?
BOB GARFIELD: What is the process by which a story like this first develops, and how does it get to the point where senior government officials get involved?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, this is a kind of extraordinary example of a regular process that national security reporters go through. In an era when almost everything is classified, most of our conversations begin with confidential sources and then work in the direction of trying to document something that is a secret, something that's not well-known. And as you get closer to publication you really engage in a much more explicit discussion of what you're going to say. And you get feedback, sometimes at very senior levels.
BOB GARFIELD: How is a reporter to know whether there's really something at stake here or whether the senior administration officials are just crying wolf?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Well, when you start the story, you're talking to people on a background basis or off-the-record basis, and often you'll get information. They'll say, "Look, there's a huge policy debate in the administration. I'm on one side of it, some other people are on the other side of it, and here's what the debate's about." They may say at some point, "Well, by way of illustration, here's the sort of thing that's been occurring," but then they'll say, "But you cannot use that." You're getting a lot of feedback about what it is that people think is legitimate to talk about and what their concerns are. So by the time the administration - and that is to say the more political entity that wants to shape and control the news, which is what, frankly, most security classification is about, by the time they get involved, you usually already know what it is that's safe to print. It's pretty extraordinary when they come and they say, "Gee, you can't talk about this at all. You really shouldn't." That's very singular.
BOB GARFIELD: So how unusual is it for a paper actually to say, "You know, on further reflection, we're not going to print the entire story; we're going to delete this portion of it?" Is that common practice?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Almost every important national security story has something that is not in the story. It's not the job of the national security reporter to do something that might damage the national security. So there are things that you begin to say, "Gee, I wonder if I really need to say that? Will the reader or the viewer or the listener learn something that's absolutely critically important if I put in the name of a unit or I begin to talk about something, particularly something that's new?" So you begin to test with your sources that, and they will quite often say, "Don't put in that specific a reference," in the case of an intercept, because that will compromise the system. And frankly, we've been trying to get reporters more educated about what it is that the intelligence professionals, as opposed to the political actors in the administration, what they're really sensitive about, because it hurts the intelligence business.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've been talking in general to this point. With this story, which is about the National Security Agency listening in to telephone calls, principally, it's hard to see what in the story would have been deemed so sensitive as to hold it for a year. There's certainly no secret about the fact and there's, I guess, no terrorist, even, unaware of the fact that the American spy agencies can [CHUCKLES] monitor telephone calls.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: You have to look at this story that the New York Times has done. It's one cross-section of a larger story, a larger picture. And if you try and play back from this particular story to what is, what took them a year to do this, you're missing the point that there are many other factors that they still haven't fully decided to report on or haven't decided how they're going to say or haven't confirmed. And as the story developed, they were, I think, not aware that this was as much in variance with what's legal and what's considered to be within the proper function of the National Security Agency and the proper function of warrants for wiretaps, and they began to look at what the issues were. Is it extra-legal? Is it something that ought to be debated in a constitutional system? And they finally concluded that it was, and that's the part that they published.
BOB GARFIELD: How much does the history of the Times' relationship with the government affect its behavior and the Bush Administration's in this particular case?
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Historically they have had the willingness to suppress information. The Bay of Pigs was something that they soft-pedaled, lowered their story and profile on. They moved people around from different bureaus, at the complaints of the intelligence community, all through the '50s and '60s. And you also had this notion more recently that the Times had a reporter, Judy Miller, who was extremely compliant with some of the interests of the administration and seemed to be reporting things that they were feeding her with some regularity, and it raised questions about their independence. That has not been their practice from the mid-1970s, when they broke the original stories about domestic spying, where NSA was spying on American citizens, through recent times. They've been very aggressive reporters, very professional and the editorial process has been exactly what you would want it to be - constantly questioning where things are going.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Scott. Well, as always, thanks very much.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Armstrong is a former Washington Post reporter and now co-chair of an ongoing dialog between intelligence agencies and the media that cover them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
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