Dean Baquet Defends New York Times Amid Leak Controversy: 'We Can't Edit A Paper For Our Critics'


NEW YORK -- Dean Baquet, managing editor of The New York Times, defended his paper's national security coverage after members of Congress called for an investigation into the leaking of classified information for recent stories focusing on President Barack Obama's terrorist "kill list" and the United States' use of cyberattacks against Iran.

"Both the rise and use of drones, and the increased use of cyberwarfare, are the kinds of issues that we have a public service mission to surface so they can be part of a national debate," Baquet said Thursday in an interview with The Huffington Post.

"That's our job," Baquet said. "That's our primary job, to report things that should be part of the national discussion."

Several senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), along with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), have criticized the leaks in television interviews over the past few days. And some have suggested that the White House leaked information to the Times in an effort to portray the president as tough on national security during an election year.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that "any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible."

Baquet said he "would more easily understand the criticism if we did not examine Obama's role in drone strikes than the criticism that we did."

He also questioned whether some members of the "Washington political class" are too preoccupied with questions about when the stories were published and who will benefit from them, rather than focusing on the substance of the reporting itself.

"I wonder if only Washington is having the debate about [the stories'] timing, as opposed to what they actually said," Baquet said. "I wonder if more Americans read those stories and are having debates about these two significant, history-making programs. I think history will be more focused on the rise of cyberwarfare and the rise of drones. And whether they're good or bad things, we'll leave to history and to readers."

The controversy stems from two front-page Times stories last week.

On May 29, reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote a 6,000-word piece delving into Obama's hands-on role in counterterrorism operations, which was based on conversations with three dozen advisers and included details such as the existence of a set of "baseball cards" containing information about suspected terrorists.

Three days later, the paper ran a piece by David Sanger about how Obama had stepped up cyberattacks on Iran, an excerpt from his new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

"I reject the notion that they were leaks," Baquet said, arguing that "leaks" come with "the implication they were access journalism and someone in the White House called up and said, 'Let me give you something that makes the president look good.'"

Baquest said that Sanger's piece "had been in the works for 18 months," while the Shane/Becker piece was reported over several months.

"It was deeply reported," Baquet said of the latter. "[Becker] is the reporter who wrote compellingly about Dick Cheney for the Washington Post. Scott Shane is one of the two or three reporters involved in our Shadow War project."

"The two perfect reporters decided to do it months ago and we decided to publish it when it was ready," he added.

While some may view the stories as positive for Obama's re-election campaign, suggesting that they cast the president as decisive and hawkish on national security, Baquet rejected the idea that the articles could only be seen in a flattering light.

"We've gotten lots of comments," Baquet said, including from "people who are critical of the White House for escalating the use of cyberattacks, and others who were critical of the president's deep involvement in drone strikes."

"I think the view of whether they help him or hurt him depends on where you sit," he added.

"Some things we write, people will read as pro-Obama," Baquet said. "Some things we write, people will read as anti-Obama, and that depends on people's politics, including Joe Scarborough." (The MSNBC host railed for 20 minutes Thursday about the Times being unfair to Republican nominee Mitt Romney)

"We can't edit a paper for our critics," Baquet said.

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