NEW YORK -- In the fall of 2005, New York Times reporter James Risen invited a colleague, Eric Lichtblau, to his house to read a chapter from his forthcoming book, State of War.
The chapter, titled "The Program,” revealed the existence of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program -- information that he and Lichtblau had tried unsuccessfully to publish in the Times a year earlier. Justice Department whistleblower Thomas Tamm first contacted Lichtblau in the spring of 2004, and Lichtblau and Risen reported the story over the course of several months. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, high-ranking Bush administration officials persuaded the paper’s brass to spike the story -- a fact that, if revealed first in Risen’s book, could make Times editors look weak for accepting the government’s national security claims.
"He had a gun to their head,” Lichtblau said in a three-hour "Frontline" documentary, “United States of Secrets,” the first part of which aired Tuesday night. “They were being forced to reconsider. The paper's going to look pretty bad."
The Times published the story on Dec. 16, 2005.
Bill Keller, executive editor at the time, has long maintained that the Times ran Risen and Lichtblau’s NSA story -- which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize -- when it was journalistically sound and editors’ national security fears had been alleviated.
"The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim's forthcoming book or any other event," Keller said at the time. "We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it."
But reports surfaced soon after publication that suggested otherwise. Four days later, NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that “the approaching release of Risen's book forced senior editors to focus grudgingly on the NSA story.” Gabriel Sherman, then with the New York Observer, similarly reported that the forthcoming book played a role.
On Jan. 3, 2006, Risen spoke about the secret NSA program on the "Today" show, but declined to discuss internal discussions at the Times. Now eight years later, he is more willing to talk and recalled on "Frontline" that the "only way to get the story out was to put it in a book."
"The editors were furious at me,” Risen said when word of his plans spread at the Times. “They thought I was being insubordinate."
For several months, Risen recalled, there was a “massive game of chicken between me, my book and The New York Times.”
It’s rare for the internal deliberations of a newsroom to still command attention nearly a decade later. But the Times decision-making recalls the dark, post-9/11 climate in which many in the U.S. media were cowed by the Bush administration, a period in which the press helped promote the government’s bogus rationale for invading Iraq.
On "Frontline," Keller recalled a December 2005 meeting in the Oval Office in which Bush told him, then-Times Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. that the paper would essentially be complicit if there were another terrorist attack following revelation of the NSA surveillance program.
"He was saying, in effect, you, Arthur Sulzberger, will have blood on your hands if there's another attack that could have been prevented by this program,” Keller said. “I think anybody would feel goosebumps."
While the Times has faced criticism for holding the story over 13 months, it's worth noting that Keller and Sulzberger did publish in the face of such dire warnings from the White House.
The Times editors’ decision has also become more notable in light of the NSA disclosures from former contractor Edward Snowden. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in November 2013 that the blockbuster story “still resonates deeply” with Times readers.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was at the center of the Snowden story, mentioned the Times decision on the first page of his book, No Place to Hide, which came out Tuesday. Around the time of the Times story, Greenwald began aggressively blogging on civil liberties issues and the media, which he has argued are too willing to accept the government’s rationale for holding information.
“It was this background that prompted Edward Snowden, several years later, to choose me as his first contact person for revealing NSA wrongdoing on an even more massive scale,” Greenwald wrote in his book. “He said he believed I could be counted on to understand the dangers of mass surveillance and extreme state secrecy, and not to back down in the face of pressure from the government and its many allies in the media and elsewhere.”
Indeed, Snowden recalled the warrantless wiretapping story in a Rolling Stone interview last year, saying that “when the subject of [one's] reporting is an institution as wildly beyond the control of law as the US Intelligence Community, even the best intentions of the New York Times begin to quaver."
Risen, though, isn't one to quaver. He remains locked in legal battle spanning two administrations over his desire to protect a source for another chapter in State of War, which covered a bungled CIA plot in Iran.