New York Times Editor Dean Baquet: Media Failed After 9/11, Hopes Next Snowden Comes To Them

Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet listens to a question after addressing the Associated Press Managing Editors conference
Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet listens to a question after addressing the Associated Press Managing Editors conference in New Orleans Thursday Oct. 26,2006. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

NEW YORK -- New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet said in a revealing interview published Friday that he "absolutely" agreed with Times reporter James Risen that the mainstream media had "failed" after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"The mainstream press was not aggressive enough after 9/11, was not aggressive enough in asking questions about a decision to go to war in Iraq, was not aggressive enough in asking the hard questions about the War on Terror," Baquet told German magazine Der Spiegel. "I accept that for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times." (Baquet was previously top editor at the Los Angeles Times.)

Baquet's admission echoes remarks made by his predecessor, Jill Abramson, who said in a July speech that editors gave in too readily to the Bush administration's demands. "I think, in real time, right after 9/11, none of us had a notion of what the 'war on terror' would involve and that there would be so many aspects of civil liberties that would be called into question," Abramson told HuffPost after the speech. "We were naïve."

The most difficult decision an editor is likely to face is when a top government official -- all the way up to the president or vice president -- contends that publishing certain information could get someone killed or put the country at risk of a terrorist attack. And security concerns are, at times, a compelling reason not to publish such information. But both the Bush and Obama administrations invoked such concerns so frequently after 2001 that some editors, including those at the Times, have become more reluctant to give in.

In the Der Spiegel interview, Baquet said he regretted that the Times had not reported in 2011 that the U.S. was operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia, a decision he made after hearing from a "high-ranking CIA official."

"I accepted it. And I was wrong," Baquet said. "I made a decision on deadline that I regretted almost the next day. We then published the information later. It taught me a lesson. But there are instances where I think you do have to hold things back, and I can think of some instances where I don't regret it."

Baquet wasn't the only one to hold the drone story, as The Washington Post and the Associated Press also acceded to the CIA's request. But The Times of London did publish that detail back in July 2011. Richard Beeston, the late foreign editor of the London paper, told HuffPost at the time that calling the CIA on such stories was "futile" and expressed surprise that top U.S. papers had followed the agency's request.

Though Baquet said Friday that he regretted his decision regarding the drone base, the Times didn't report on it until Feb. 6, 2013, long after foreign outlets had already revealed it. "I think the government's argument is that losing the drone base would jeopardize national security," Baquet told HuffPost the day after the Times published its story. "We didn't think there was a compelling news reason to blow off that argument. When a compelling news reason developed, we published."

Der Spiegel's Isabell Hülsen and Holger Stark also asked Baquet about one of the paper's most pivotal, and controversial, decisions after 9/11.

In Dec. 2005, the Times published a blockbuster report on the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping, a move that infuriated the Bush administration. But the Times had actually held the story at the administration's request for 13 months, finally publishing just weeks before Risen was to reveal the secret spying program in his book State of War.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has said the Times' hesitance a decade ago prompted him to bypass the paper when he decided to leak documents detailing the vast U.S. surveillance state. Baquet, who was not at the Times when the paper published its wiretapping story, said it "hurt a lot" that Snowden didn't come to them. Baquet acknowledged having been beaten by The Guardian and Washington Post on "arguably the biggest national security story in many, many years." Baquet said the Times did good follow-up reporting, but that losing the major scoop "was really, really, really painful."

Baquet suggested Snowden's revelations, along with the WikiLeaks disclosures and his own regrets about withholding some information, have shaped his thinking going forward.

"It was the whole understanding of how much the country had changed through the War on Terror," he said. "For me personally, the Saudi Arabia example was really powerful because it became so clear to me. When I reconstructed for myself how I made the decision, I remembered how I'd called up the reporters and they disagreed with me. I made the decision without really talking to them enough. I think I did everything wrong. And then Snowden sealed the deal."

When asked why the next Snowden should come to the Times, Baquet said that the paper has "the bodies, the brains, and, I would argue, the guts to publish it."