Tuesday, December 20

Why did the NYTimes run the NSA story now?

Broadly, newspapers print two types of stories: current news--things that happened today or yesterday--and everything else. The latter includes 'color' stories, travelogues, articles that purport to analyze major events in more depth and so on.

Three days ago the editors of the NYTimes decided to publish a story they'd reportedly been sitting on for a whole year--that the President had authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap calls from overseas to certain U.S. telephones, and vice-versa, without going through the FISA warrant process. The breathless lede was that "the Bush administration is spying on innocent Americans!

But why did the editor of the Times decide to run the story now. Did some crucial missing piece of information suddenly fall into place that confirmed the story? Did some event happen in the past few days that was clearly conneced to the NSA wiretaps--perhaps the FBI busting an al-Qaeda plot in the U.S.--that would give the story a hook to current events?

If any sort of tie-in existed, the Times didn't bother to mention it. Which puts us back to the original question: Why did they decide to publish now?

There's been a great deal of speculation as to the reason. Indeed, the Times' own "public editor" was moved to ask both the paper's editor and the publisher the same question.

They declined to answer. Not just "didn't reply" but overtly said they would not tell him the reason. (Hey, secrecy is fine for the Times' management, just not for the government or anyone else!)

Since the paper's owner and editor are stonewalling, let me take a shot: I think the Times decided to publish the wiretap story now just to divert America's attention from the hugely successful election in Iraq on December 15th. Because otherwise, Bush's decision to liberate Iraq would be largely vindicated.

The story that a full 70 percent of Iraqi voters defied death threats (by some folks with a heavy record of killing civilians for no reason) to cast their vote is one that most 'swing voters' in the U.S. couldn't help but notice and be impressed by. That the Iraqi voters included tens of thousands of Sunnis--who had largely boycotted the last election--made it even more of a cause for celebration.

And finally, when it's pointed out that the Iraqis' 70% turnout is far higher than the usual American turnout for a presidential election, the story becomes a thorough, unequivocal victory for Bush's decision.

The Times wanted a way to keep the Iraq-election story from getting this favorable publicity. Of course in their own pages the Times could (and did) bury the story, but that wouldn't keep other papers from putting this great news on their front page.

The Times' solution was to release a story that would distract the public's attention from the Iraq elections. They'd had this story in their pocket for a year, and there was no plausible hook that made it timely, but the editors of the Times probably figured only professional journos would notice--and they'd never tell.

The Times was hardly alone among MSM/Leftist media in burying the story of the election in Iraq. For a good roundup of the reaction click here.

Of course there are other possible explanations--some too grim to credit: One of the Times reporters on this story (Risen) has written a book on the NSA wiretap program, scheduled for release in January. Clearly, after the book was released the Times story would have far less impact.

Would the Times reveal a secret program vital to national security just to sell a few thousand more papers? One can only hope not. But I'm not optimistic.


On a related note: the original story was that the NSA intercepted calls from known overseas numbers to the U.S., or vice-versa, or calls to/from overseas in which a word was detected (presumably by computer) from a list of "buzz words". It was this instant-detection feature that made warrants hugely cumbersome.

But now, predictably, headlines about the story have now morphed into "NSA listened to American calls without a warrant." The key qualifier--that one end of the intercepted or screened calls had to be overseas--has been conveniently omitted.

And now, by astonishing coincidence, we're starting to see polls asking Americans if they "agree that it's wrong for the government to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant." Not surprisingly, a big chunk of the electorate thinks that's wrong. Of course all stories on the NSA program fail to mention that one end of every monitored call was overseas--and that one end of each call was a number with a known connection to Al-Qaida. Given this omission, the twin engines of misleading headlines and straw-man poll questions will fool roughly half the electorate into believing what the Times wants them to believe: that this program was spying on entirely-domestic conversations, without a warrant.

I think this story will keep getting bigger, certainly through the '06 elections if not 2008. For years the MSM has wanted to find "Watergate-2", and the Times thinks they've found it. They won't let go of that notion easily.

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