Eric Lichtblau's Education

by Gabriel Sherman | March 27, 2008

This morning, Slate published an excerpt of New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau's forthcoming book, Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice. The 1800-word piece, titled "The Education of a 9/11 Reporter," is billed as a behind-the-scenes look at the Times' bombshell investigation that disclosed the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program authorized by the Bush administration in the heated days after Sept. 11.

As we all remember, Lichtblau and Times intelligence reporter James Risen first reported the NSA surveillance program on the eve of the 2004 Presidential election, but the Times sat on the scoop for more than a year and ran the piece shortly before Risen's book, State of War, disclosed the controversial NSA program in its pages.Lichtblau's Slate piece gives texture to the newsroom drama that enveloped the Times in December 2005. For the first time, Lichtblau confirms that his co-writer Jim Risen surreptitiously grafted the wiretapping reporting onto his book project, which Risen had originally billed as a profile of then-CIA director George Tenet.

"Then, one night in the spring of 2005, he called me out to his home in suburban Maryland and sat me down at his computer," Lichtblau writes. "There on the computer screen was a draft of a chapter called simply 'The Program.' It was about the NSA's wiretapping operation. 'I'm thinking of putting this in the book,' he said. I sat and stared at the screen in silence. 'You sure you know what you're doing?' I asked finally. He shrugged."

Risen famously never told his Times editors that he had repurposed the NSA reporting before it entered the draft of his book. As I reported at the New York Observer in January 2006, Risen even made Times editors sign a non-disclosure agreement before they were allowed to view his manuscript. The Times ultimately decided to publish the NSA investigation before editors had gotten a chance to view pre-publication copies of Risen's book. And, according to Joe Hagan's excellent New York Magazine piece in September 2006, Times Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman only learned that Risen had appropriated the NSA material from a friend, not from his reporter directly.

A lot of this confirms what we already know. But the most salient disclosure in Lichtblau's account comes later. Lichtblau writes that Risen's book was the "trigger" that spurred Times editors to finally run the long-awaited NSA investigation.

"Risen spoke with our editors about what he was contemplating, and so began weeks of discussions between him and the editors that ultimately helped to set the story back on track," he writes.

The relationship between the spiked Times article and Risen's book has been the central question facing the Paper of Record on this story. Why did executive Bill Keller hold the NSA piece for over a year? And what changed in the interim period that encouraged Keller and the Times to publish the investigation?

Lichtblau's Slate piece is the first time that a Times staffer involved in the proceedings has disclosed publicly that Risen's book did in fact pressure the Times to revisit the NSA article that was sitting in the hopper. For his part, Bill Keller's prior public comments on the episode now are contradicted by Lichtblau's version of events.

Keller said in a statement in late December 2005: "The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim [Risen's] forthcoming book or any other event. 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."

Keller later told New York's Joe Hagan that the "conventional wisdom" that Risen's book influenced the Times to run the NSA piece was "bullshit."

Still, in one way, Lichtblau's piece is notable for what it leaves out. Both Lichtblau and Risen were indignant that Keller had held the piece for more than a year. Friends of the reporters told me at the time that they were irate, and some even suggested that Risen was flirting with returning to the Los Angeles Times where had previously been a reporter. But Lichtblau offers us a more sanitized account, as if having the biggest story of your career killed is just par for the course. 

After the reporters learned that Times editors spiked their story, which Lichtblau describes merely as a "difficult decision," he writes: "I went back to writing about more mundane terrorism and law-enforcement matters, poking around discreetly to find out what had happened to the NSA's eavesdropping program. Risen went on sabbatical to write a book about intelligence matters."

--Gabe Sherman 

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