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Thursday, 30 April 2009 04:48

Did the NYT Help Bush Win the 2004 Election by Sitting on the Illegal NSA Wiretapping Story at the Request of Jane Harman?

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by Christine Bowman

A Disturbing Picture Emerges If You Connect the Dots: Rep. Jane Harman's Israeli-Spy Wiretap Story Ties-in with NYT's More Than Year-Long Delay in Breaking the Warrantless Wiretap Domestic Spying Story.

Maybe the details of the Jane Harman/AIPAC wiretapping story are too overwhelming for many political observers to wrap their heads around. Okay. TPM Muckraker and CQ Politics and The Daily Show and Salon and others have done a good job of presenting the basic outlines of the Harman story, for anyone who missed it or wants to bone up on the details. Suffice it to say, the complex plot would translate beautifully into a big-screen, film-noir thriller. One to rival "All the President's Men," in fact.

But step back from the enigmatic, five-year-long whodunit of twists and turns and accusations, and what is the big picture? Try this theory on for size: The conscious manipulation by powerful forces of the American democratic process and the outright throwing of a presidential election. (Just a theory.)

The key points to focus on are that it seems like the nation's arguably top news publisher (The New York Times) was swayed by the nation's arguably top Executive Branch attorney (Alberto Gonzales) and a self-serving, duly elected Congresswoman sitting on the House Intelligence Committee (CA Rep. Jane Harman) to cover up a program of illegal government spying on US citizens -- on the eve of an incredibly close presidential election. Are you paying attention yet?

In the Fall of 2004, prior to the November 2 presidential election, The New York Times knew about the Bush Administration's new warrantless domestic wiretapping program, thanks to hard investigative work by their crack reporters. Yet the paper's Washington bureau chief and executive editor kept that information to themselves for well over a year -- sitting on the story until December 16, 2005.

What if they had not done that? The vote count in Ohio, just to pick one very critical state in the 2004 presidential election, was very close, with allegations of many irregularities, to boot. (Iowa and New Mexico were even closer.) If The Times had let voters know -- as soon as they themselves knew -- that the Bush Administration had an ongoing program of intercepting American citizens' domestic emails and phone calls, without FISA approval, wouldn't a good many more voters have pulled the lever for Democrat John Kerry? Almost certainly, some lower level Democratic candidates would have benefited from the release of that news, too.

But the top management of The Times decided not to let voters have that knowledge. It was top management's judgment that such news was "not fit to print," to reference the paper's classic slogan.

Here's a partial synopsis of the quashing of that huge story -- which was about the Executive Branch ignoring the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee of privacy rights -- as reported by The Times on April 23, 2009:

Ms. Harman had weighed in beginning in 2004 in urging The Times not to publish an article about the secret surveillance program.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said in a statement this week that Ms. Harman spoke with Philip Taubman, then the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, in October or November 2004, urging that the article not be published.

One former official said Thursday that Michael V. Hayden, then the director of the security agency, and John E. McLaughlin, then the acting director of the C.I.A., prepared talking points for Ms. Harman to use in her discussion with Mr. Taubman.

Ms. Harman’s spokesman said she “has absolutely no recollection of any talking points for a phone call that took place five years ago.”

Mr. Keller said Ms. Harman had told Mr. Taubman that she was calling at the request of Mr. Hayden.

Mr. Keller added that Ms. Harman had not spoken with him and that he did not remember her position’s being “a significant factor” in his decision not to publish the article at the time. The article was published in December 2005.

It's interesting to note that, when urging The Times in 2004 not to break the domestic spying story, Harman was doing the bidding of the heads of the NSA and the CIA. Interesting, too, that The Times still, to this day, has not published the exact date of Harman's (or anyone else's) intervention. Nor have they quoted Taubman on what was said or how the quashing went forward.

Furthermore, the newspaper's latest 2009 account of that intervention makes no reference to the hotly contested national election that was then the top news-making event in America. That aspect was addressed, but only up to a point, by the paper's public editor, Byron Calame, on August 13, 2006:

Internal discussions about drafts of the article had been “dragging on for weeks” before the Nov. 2 election, Mr. Keller acknowledged. That process had included talks with the Bush administration. He said a fresh draft was the subject of internal deliberations “less than a week” before the election.

“The climactic discussion about whether to publish was right on the eve of the election,” Mr. Keller said. The pre-election discussions included Jill Abramson, a managing editor; Philip Taubman, the chief of the Washington bureau; Rebecca Corbett, the editor handling the story, and often Mr. Risen. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, was briefed, but Mr. Keller said the final decision to hold the story was his.

... Holding a fresh draft of the story just days before the election also was an issue of fairness, Mr. Keller said. I agree that candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time — several days to a week — to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls.

... Were the wording and the sensitivity of the election-day timing issue discussed internally? “I don’t remember,” Mr. Keller said in an interview.

... Given the importance of this otherwise outstanding article on warrantless eavesdropping — and now the confirmation of pre-election decisions to delay publication — The Times owes it to readers to set the official record straight.

There's more in the public editor's 2006 column to suggest that Keller carefully parsed his words, at a minimum, and avoided coming clean about the events surrounding the timing of the release of the story. In 2009, Keller again remains circumspect, to put it generously. First he released a statement to Greg Sargent at the Plumline saying, "Ms. Harman did not influence my decision. I don’t recall that she even spoke to me." A few days later, in his statement published in The Times, he says that Harman didn't speak to him, but did speak to the DC bureau chief. So much for "I don't recall ..."

Is The New York Times ready to update the "official record" now that their spiking of this bombshell of a story has repercussions for a story of congressional corruption and international spying? Can the Public Editor tell us exactly when Jane Harman talked to the DC bureau chief?

It does not seem insignificant either that, later, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales learned (presumably from Keller?) that The Times was finally going to release their report on domestic spying, he stepped in to block a nascent probe of Rep. Harman and AIPAC and alleged Israeli spying -- because he "needed Jane" to help deflect criticism of the domestic spying program:

But according to the two former national security officials, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the Times. Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program."


And the investigation of Harman was dropped like a hot potato. Its existence only became public this month.

Since major players in this game of intrigue -- most notably Gonzales, but also Harman now -- have acquired the stench of corruption about them, is it reasonable to assume that The New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has nothing to hide, and nothing to apologize for? His way of addressing the questions raised by his own public editor three years back and in an earlier column does not instill confidence. A few more excerpts:

"I don't remember."

The eavesdropping information "first became known to Times reporters" a year ago, he said.

[then] "... more than a year ago ..."

Mr. Keller declined to explain in detail his pre-election decision to hold the article, citing obligations to preserve the confidentiality of sources.

“Whether publishing earlier would have influenced the 2004 election is, I think, hard to say. Judging from the public reaction to the N.S.A. eavesdropping reflected in various polls, one could ask whether earlier disclosure might have helped President Bush more than hurt.”

“... old business ...”

Like it or not, this story is now about a media big shot who helped top government officials hide the fact that they had been spying on citizens without judicial oversight. It's also about a powerful media figure or figures who hid a dubious activity by GOP and White House insiders from voters on the eve of a very important and close election -- even while recognizing that their decision would likely change votes. Why did they do that?

Echoes of Watergate? Well, at least in that little caper, the media were the good guys. Seems like The New York Times still has more explaining to do.