Former Top NYT Editor: Obama Officials Repeatedly Told Me 'You'll Have Blood on Your Hands'

Eleanor Clift of The Daily Beast profiled former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, and suggested  she’s best known for asserting “the Obama administration is the most secretive of any she has covered, and in 22 years in Washington, that covers a lot of White Houses. She got plenty of grief from President Obama’s top aides in the aftermath, and while other journalists made the same observation, Abramson’s words carried weight, coming as they did from the prestigious newspaper’s first female top editor.”

Clift added “Two months after leaving the Times, in case anyone is wondering, she isn’t backing down from that assertion, but backing it up with concrete examples and inside anecdotes."

“I have heard Obama officials say more than once, ‘You will have blood on your hands if you publish this story,’” she said in a speech Wednesday at the Chautauqua Institution describing her perspective as a key player in the midst of some of the biggest stories of our time pitting press freedom against national security.

It’s a question of balancing competing interests, the government’s claims versus the public’s right to know. “When someone says, ‘You’ll have blood on your hands,’ you pause and take it very seriously,” she said, explaining how her views evolved from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when she and other key media figures were on a conference call with Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and at his request agreed with apparently no dissent not to publish anything about the sources or methods the intelligence community was using in the aftermath of the attacks. “It was an easy commitment to make,” she said. “And for a few years, we didn’t publish anything that would break that agreement.”

Then, despite requests from President Bush himself, the Times published a story it had held for a year on warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorist contacts.

For all that, Abramson notes that Bush did not launch a criminal investigation to find the source of the Times story. “Obama is very different,” she said, pointing out that he has ordered eight criminal investigations into whistleblowers, twice the number of all previous presidents combined, and a year ago secretly subpoenaed the phone and email records of reporters at Fox News and the Associated Press.


The “blood on your hands” comment came from (among others) Obama’s director of national intelligence James Clapper:

Abramson said her speech could be titled “I Hate Censorship,” but she told stories of media restraint, as well. One involved the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who called her on her cellphone while she was on a crowded commuter train. “Jill Abramson, you will have blood on your hands,” he said. He argued that revealing the details of an intercept would imperil the administration’s efforts to derail a terrorist plot. “I decided this request was reasonable,” she said. One day later, a rival news organization, McClatchy, published the information. “I don’t regret that decision,” she said. “McClatchy was the winner and got the scoop, and I will live with that.”

Abramson dodged a question about how history would regard mega-leaker Edward Snowden, saying she thinks it was “an act of conscience to disclose that treasure trove of information.” Clift wrote “For journalists, Snowden’s leak is the gift that keeps on giving.” Abramson said “We haven’t nearly reached the bottom on these searches. Snowden leaked so much.”

Most media outlets seized on her reaction to being fired by Times publisher "Pinch" Sulzberger in May: "I was fired because of my quote-unquote management skills—and to be honest with you, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis