How The New York Times Stole Christmas

The folks over at The New York Times must be laughing their heads off. With the President’s poll numbers on the rise, a fabulous election result in Iraq, and the potential extension of a key antiterrorism bill that the administration holds dear, the Times stole Christmas from the White House last week with the release of one carefully-timed article.

After some pretty horrible months in September and October, President Bush has been fighting his way back up from a virtual poll abyss. The economy—regardless of left-wing protestations to the contrary—has been humming. Energy prices—regardless of, well, you get the point—have been plummeting. And, the Sunnis, who largely boycotted the past two elections in Iraq, were giving signs that they would participate in Thursday’s elections in very large, enthusiastic numbers.

All the President needed to make this holiday season a truly joyous one was a relatively safe, incident-free day at the Iraqi polls Thursday, and the Patriot Act to be extended before Congress adjourned for the year on Friday.

The Grinch…err., I mean, the Times had something else in mind. It couldn’t stop Thursday’s estimated 11 million Iraqis—over 70 percent of registered voters—from making their way to the polls on an almost violence-free, glorious day. Instead, rather than allow the American people to spend the weekend savoring the moment, the Times published an article on Friday claiming that the President had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans who were thought to be terrorists or al Qaeda operatives without obtaining court orders allowing it to do so.

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch!”

The timing of the release of this article was immediately questioned. First, the Times had admittedly been sitting on this story for more than twelve months. Second, the Drudge Report announced  at 11:37 AM Friday that one of the article’s authors, James Risen, was about to have a book released entitled “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” and that this story was part of the book. Yet, the Times chose not to disclose this fact.

“You really are a heel!”

Regardless, the damage had already been done. As a result of this article, several senators changed their minds about the Patriot Act, and not enough votes materialized on Friday to end the filibuster blocking an extension of this antiterrorism bill.

You’re as cuddly as a cactus! You’re as charming as an eel!”

On Saturday,  the Times had a Grinchy smile:

“Disclosure of the eavesdropping prompted immediate calls from some lawmakers for an end to the program and for Congressional and possible criminal investigations into its operations. One senator, Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said the new information had prompted him to support the filibuster against extending the antiterrorism law.

“‘I went to bed undecided,’ Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor, “but today’s revelation that the government has listened in on thousands of phone conversations is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote.’”

Confirming the impact this story had on Friday’s vote was a Washington Post article published Saturday:

“Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said it was conceivable the Times waited to publish its NSA story as the Senate took up renewal of the Patriot Act. ‘It’s not unheard of to wait for a news peg,’ he said. ‘It’s not unusual to discover the existence of something and not know the context of it until later.’”

One senator was so convinced this article changed the course of Friday’s vote that he accused the Times of endangering national security. As reported  by the Associated Press on Saturday:

“At least two senators that I heard with my own ears cited this as a reason why they decided to vote to not allow a bipartisan majority to reauthorize the Patriot Act,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.”

As has been the case the past few weeks, the President fought back. In his weekly radio address, also delivered before television cameras in an unusual move, the President lashed out at the Times while enumerating some of the errors and omissions in its article. As reported by the AP on Saturday:

“Bush said the program was narrowly designed and used ‘consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.’ He said it is used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who have been determined to have ‘a clear link’ to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.”

In a post-9/11 world, this does seem to be a reasonable strategy to avert further terrorist attacks. Wouldn’t most Americans wish that the 9/11 hijackers all had their “international communications” intercepted regardless of the existence of a court order to do so?

“The program is reviewed every 45 days, using fresh threat assessments, legal reviews by the Justice Department, White House counsel and others, and information from previous activities under the program, the president said.

“Without identifying specific lawmakers, Bush said congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times on the program’s activities.”

The article continued:

“Appearing angry at points during his eight-minute address, Bush said he had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and plans to continue doing so.”

It seems logical that after twelve months, proper research and vetting on the part of Times’ editors would have identified the number of times that the President had apprised Congress of this strategy, as well as how often it was reauthorized. Yet, in the 3,300-word Times article that started all this hoopla, Congressional oversight was depicted as:

“The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.”

This is a far cry from the President’s claims in his radio address on Saturday as paraphrased by AP that

“The program is reviewed every 45 days,” “congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times on the program’s activities,” and “he had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

The AP article concluded:

“The president had harsh words for those who talked about the program to the media, saying their actions were illegal and improper.

“‘As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have,’ he said. ‘The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.’”

This is addressed in a couple of instances in the Times article, including in one of the final paragraphs:

“The administration also feared that by publicly disclosing the existence of the operation, its usefulness in tracking terrorists would end, officials said.”

This admission raises an important question: what suddenly overrode the Times’ reasonable and legitimate concerns for national security issues, causing it to release this story on Friday after keeping it under wraps for more than twelve months?

Regardless of the answer, the momentum that the White House had wrested back in the past month has clearly been stalled judging from the media response. As NewsBusters reported, all three broadcast networks lead with the eavesdropping scandal story on their Friday evening news reports. So did most of the Sunday political talk shows.

As a result, instead of a weekend of Christmas shopping and visions of sugar plum fairies, Americans were bludgeoned with images of George Orwell. The three words that best describe this are as follows, and I quote:

“Stink, STANK, STUNK!”   

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.