NY Times editor who held Bush wiretapping story for a year to join criminal justice nonprofit — that focuses on news coverage

By John Byrne
Monday, February 10, 2014 10:20 EDT
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Bill Keller Conde Nast
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An editor who held back on reporting one of the most sweeping violations of American law in recent history is set to join a new nonprofit — focused on drawing attention to criminal justice and news media coverage in America.

The New York Times editor whose decision to hold a story revealing that President George W. Bush was eavesdropping on Americans’ calls for more than a year will join a new nonprofit news site focused on the American criminal justice system.

Bill Keller, who served as the executive editor of the paper from 2003-2011 and received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Moscow earlier in his career, will join several other journalists who have announced they will start their own news services this year. Glenn Greenwald, known for revealing NSA secrets in The Guardian, Der Spiegel and other papers, opened his own shop, The Intercept, today.

Keller, 65, had the final word in the Times’ decision to hold its groundbreaking electronic eavesdropping story, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy On Callers Without Courts,” which the paper finally published in December of 2005. Notably, the paper held the story through the course of an entire presidential election, where then-President George W. Bush was re-elected by a narrow margin.

“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,” Risen wrote in the story. “After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”

The story was written by the Times‘ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau.

Lichtblau wrote of the decision to discuss holding the story again in 2005:

For 13 long months, we’d held off on publicizing one of the Bush administration’s biggest secrets. Finally, one afternoon in December 2005, as my editors and I waited anxiously in an elegantly appointed sitting room at the White House, we were again about to let President Bush’s top aides plead their case: why our newspaper shouldn’t let the public know that the president had authorized the National Security Agency, in apparent contravention of federal wiretapping law, to eavesdrop on Americans without court warrants. As New York Times Editor Bill Keller, Washington Bureau Chief Phil Taubman, and I awaited our meeting, we still weren’t sure who would make the pitch for the president. Dick Cheney had thought about coming to the meeting but figured his own tense relations with the newspaper might actually hinder the White House’s efforts to stop publication. (He was probably right.) As the door to the conference room opened, however, a slew of other White House VIPs strolled out to greet us, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice near the head of the receiving line and White House Counsel Harriet Miers at the back.

For more than an hour, we told Bush’s aides what we knew about the wiretapping program, and they in turn told us why it would do grave harm to national security to let anyone else in on the secret. Consider the financial damage to the phone carriers that took part in the program, one official implored. If the terrorists knew about the wiretapping program, it would be rendered useless and would have to be shut down immediately, another official urged: “It’s all the marbles.” The risk to national security was incalculable, the White House VIPs said, their voices stern, their faces drawn. “The enemy,” one official warned, “is inside the gates.” The clichés did their work; the message was unmistakable: If the New York Times went ahead and published this story, we would share the blame for the next terrorist attack.

More than two years later, the Times‘ decision to publish the story—a decision that was once so controversial—has been largely overshadowed by all the other political and legal clamor surrounding President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program: the dozens of civil lawsuits; the ongoing government investigations; the raging congressional debate; and the still-unresolved question, which Congress will take up again next week, of whether phone companies should be given legal immunity for their cooperation in the program. Amid the din, it’s easy to forget the hits that the newspaper took in the first place: criticism from the political left over the decision to hold the story for more than a year and from the right over the decision to publish it at all. But the episode was critical in reflecting the media’s shifting attitudes toward matters of national security—from believing the government to believing it less.

The site Keller is to join, The Marshall Project, was underwritten by journalist-cum-Wall Street money manager Neil Barsky. It is slated to open early this year.

“Since the day I was born, I have been aware that the criminal justice system in America is bizarrely horrible and weirdly tolerated,” Mr. Barsky told the Times in the article announcing Keller’s jump. “The main reason is that it’s been that way for such a long duration that we don’t challenge it anymore.”

“It’s a chance to build something from scratch, which I’ve never done before,” Keller told the paper, “and to use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and to present on a subject that really matters personally.”

“Bill has made so many contributions to The Times over his 30 years here, it’s difficult to quantify them,”  the  Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger was quoted as saying. “He challenged his newsroom colleagues to innovate while remaining true to the highest journalistic standards, and we’re all better for it.”

Keller will leave the Times in early March.

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