ON May 29, a New York Times article depicted President Barack Obama as deciding case by case on secret drone-strike assassinations, personally poring over photos of prospective targets.
Just three days later, a second article pulled the veil on the secret US cyberweapons program, providing a close narrative of how the president personally greenlighted the expansion of efforts to use computer code to destroy Iranian nuclear enrichment machines.
The articles spawned an angry response in Congress, with some denouncing election-season leaks that they said could harm national security and others, including Senator John Kerry, D-Mass, complaining about The Times’ decision to publish the secrets.
The national security complaints centered on the cyberwarfare article.
Written by David E Sanger, The Times’ chief Washington correspondent, the article recounted the origins of an effort, begun under President George W Bush, to halt the Iranian nuclear program.
The article spelled out how US programmers wrote a computer code that penetrated Iranian computers and traced a blueprint of Iran’s Natanz enrichment Centre. It told how the United States next worked with Israel to create a virus designed to sabotage the centrifuges used for fuel enrichment.
The narrative told how, because of a programming error, the virus broke out onto the Internet, where its existence became known though its purpose remained obscure.
The president, faced with a decision whether to continue, ordered the cyberattacks to go on and, as Sanger reported, “Within a week, another version of the bug brought down just under 1,000 centrifuges.” Finally, in its concluding paragraphs, the article said the cyberattacks were not limited to Iran.
All these details exposed a shadowy US weapon to public view and debate.
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that he worried that publication of such detailed information created perils outweighing Americans’ need for the specifics. “It tips people off to methods and locations and concepts and capacities,” he said.
He added: “I am not an editor, and I am not going to venture there. I have too much respect for David Sanger. I would have probably been very hard put. I just think that you have to weigh – that is the job of an editor, of a publisher – to weigh the impact of what you print, of how you do it and when you do it.” Times editors said they did weigh these considerations and followed what has become a familiar protocol, contacting government officials to determine whether there were objections on national security grounds.
In this case, the officials did not object to the articles as a whole, but certain technical details were edited out of the cyberattack article at their request, said Jill Abramson, the executive editor.
Explaining the rationale The Times used to decide whether to publish the cyberwarfare and drone-strike articles, she said, “I think the test is: These are modes of a kind of warfare being waged in the name of the American public, and the public benefits from knowing the dimensions and some of the details of those programs, although I would hardly argue they have to have all the details.” For guidance in such decisions, Abramson said she refers to two documents produced by Times editors, both related to the Pentagon Papers case.
One is an Op-Ed column written in 1972 by AM Rosenthal, then the managing editor, who asserted one year after the case that publication of the Pentagon Papers had served the public well and had led to no national security setbacks.
The other is an affidavit by Max Frankel, then the Washington bureau chief, submitted in court in support of publishing the secret documents.
It is a canny discussion of how democracy is well-served by the ecosystem of reporters and government officials trafficking in secrets while taking care to protect the nation’s core security interests.
Abramson added, “No story about details of government secrets has come near to demonstrably hurting the national security in decades and decades.” But that has not stopped responsible people from worrying that it will happen Rep. Peter King, a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told me he saw “no purpose” in publishing so many details about the cyberattacks.
More broadly, though, he was clearly exasperated by the prodigious leaking of sensitive government information that enabled The Times to produce insider accounts of the drone program and cyberweapons. In his view, the leakers were motivated to show Obama as “a powerful leader,” adding, “It seems to me that the reporters’ end of the deal was to go along with that.” The Times dismissed the notion that it was manipulated by its sources, or that the stories were dropped in the newspaper’s lap. Sanger said he began work 18 months ago, after the computer virus broke out onto the Internet and became known as Stuxnet. “I built this story from the bottom up,” he said. “I did this on multiple continents. It would be foolish to think all my sources are American.” The article, adapted from Sanger’s book “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” was published just days ahead of the book’s release date, which was set a year earlier, he said.
The article on drone strikes, meanwhile, grew out of an election coverage assignment, months in the making, that set out to explain Obama’s national security policies that had “surprised the country and surprised us journalists by hewing to policies that were similar to Bush’s in some cases,” Abramson said.
As I view all this, I conclude that Max Frankel’s Washington ecosystem produces rough truth, perhaps the best that can be achieved at a time when the nation’s most essential policies and programs are cloaked in secrecy and reporters have to scrounge in the dark for information.
The two articles tell the public what its government is up to. Did the coverage gild the president-as-decider? Probably.
The drones article cited his intellectual devotion to St Augustine and the priestly qualities of his counterterrorism adviser: That seemed a bit much.
Did the cyberweapons article deliver more detail than was necessary about the virus? Possibly. It is plausible to think it gave the Iranians something they didn’t know; Kerry certainly thought so.
But this kind of journalism isn’t surgery.
It is rougher than that, a first draft without all the details filled in and produced with limited knowledge of the other side in ongoing conflicts.
In the end, it’s essential journalism in a self-governing society.