What brings this issue to the fore is the powerful, Academy Award-finalist documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” which paints a profile in courage by (1) Daniel Ellsberg, who risked serving life in prison by copying classified material exposing the lies behind the Vietnam War, and (2) the New York Times, which dared to publish reams of Ellsberg’s material in June 1971.

It’s a gripping, suspenseful story — even for those of us with some gray in our hair who remember the Times of those times as well as how the drama played out. It is also an unusual story for today, inasmuch as it depicts a victory of inspiring courage over disheartening treachery. We see a brave devotion to the Constitution and democratic values not only by Ellsberg and the Times but by the U.S. Supreme Court, too.

If there is a downside to the documentary’s appearance now, it would be the temptation that government insiders might feel to reach the naïve conclusion that the Times of today is the same Times that risked the wrath of a vindictive Richard Nixon to help end a bloody war while also winning a landmark Supreme Court decision that fortified the protections of the First Amendment.

O Tempora, O Mores!

Sadly, those times – and that Times – are over. Potential whistleblowers disregard this new reality at their own peril.

The good news is that, with the demise of the Fourth Estate, there is now a Fifth Estate offering unprecedented opportunity to those who feel a need — and have the courage — to get the truth out quickly and confidentially. 

The Web site WikiLeaks offers one such avenue, but there are myriad other ways to exploit the Web — to use the censorship-immune (so far, at least) ether — to expose information the world needs to know.

And so, note well, patriotic truth-tellers: if you have access to documents that, let’s say, show planning for another unnecessary war or that expose the self-defeating nature of wars already under way, and if you have the courage of a Dan Ellsberg, don’t bother the folks at the New York Times with it.

They are likely to regard it as a nuisance that will require them to devise some twisted excuse for why they must sit on the story. Worse still, as recent examples suggest, they are likely to go to the White House for guidance — whether they really need to or not.

Their behavior in the years since their finest hour in publishing the Pentagon Papers has made it abundantly clear that they are convinced that they – and their friends in high places – know best what’s good for the country.

They have become well accustomed to suppressing explosive information that they decide the rest of us don’t really need to know — little things like illegal wiretapping by President George W. Bush. 

Ellsberg and the Times

Daniel Ellsberg visited New York last month to mark the TV debut of “The Most Dangerous Man in America” — the title of the documentary derived from the epithet thrown at him by then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger following release of the Pentagon Papers. 

For the first time in the 39 years since the Pentagon Papers’ publication, the New York Times decided to invite Dan into the inner sanctum.

On Sept. 13, the Times used its large, posh auditorium at the TimesCenter to host an affair honoring Dan, the film, and, of course, the Times.

Featured was a discussion moderated by Times’ Managing Editor, Jill Abramson, with panelists Ellsberg, Max Frankel (Times’ Washington Bureau Chief when Ellsberg delivered the documents, later the paper’s Executive Editor, and now retired), and Adam Liptak, the Times’ reporter on the Supreme Court. (Dan succeeded in getting several friends, including me, invited.)

The transcript of the panel discussion and Q & A is available at: http://www.pbs.org/pov/mostdangerousman/times_panel.php

The tone, understandably, was self-congratulatory, and, to her credit, with some notable exceptions Abramson generally avoided shutting off real discussion of sensitive issues. But I almost jumped out of my seat when she gratuitously mentioned that, after 9/11:

“The Times and other publications were the recipients of requests from the Bush White House to occasionally withhold publication of stories that involved secrets and national security issues. Probably the most famous one involved our publication of the story about the NSA’s eavesdropping program.”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggghhhhhhhh, said I to myself. That’s the affair in which the Times’ own reporter, James Risen, a couple of months before the general election of 2004, unearthed hard evidence that the Bush/Cheney administration was in flagrant violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. 

It was the same kind of crime/impeachable offence for which the House Judiciary Committee voted an article of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974.

But the Times didn’t make sure that this important fact was shared with American voters before they headed off to the polls in November 2004. Instead, the Times brass acquiesced to White House protests that publication wouldn’t be good for the country.

So, the Times sat on the story for more than a year, until December 2005 when Risen’s book, which included this disclosure, was in galleys and the Times faced the potential embarrassment of being scooped on its own story by its own reporter, no less.

If Risen’s book had appeared before the Times ran the story, there were sure to be pointed questions about whether the Times had become a mere propaganda arm of the U.S. government, especially on the heels of the Times’ misreporting about Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons program in 2002.

On hearing the Times’ managing editor gloss over the real history of Risen’s scoop, I thought of Harry Truman’s aphorism: Does she “think we were born yesterday?” If Jill Abramson perhaps thought Dan Ellsberg would be awed by the opulent surroundings so as to be slow on the uptake, she was dead wrong. 

Just as I was about to disrupt the dignified proceedings, Dan took the mike and replied:

“By the way, as the only non-Times person up here, I shouldn’t refrain from saying, I’ve been very publicly very critical of the Times’ decision to withhold the NSA wiretap story — not only for a whole year, but, very critically, past the election of 2004. I think it quite possible that the revelation that the President had, for three years, been blatantly violating the law…”

Abramson cut Ellsberg off at this point. She then added:

“The thing is when the government says — you know, by publishing a story you’re harming the national security, you’re helping the terrorists. I mean there are still people today who argue that the NSA program was the crown jewel, the most valuable anti-terrorism program that the Bush administration had going, and that it was terribly wrong of the Times to … publish.

“In the end, we did go ahead. But I’m saying these are not cavalier decisions.”

Plain-speaking Max Frankel, no doubt in deference to the current Times management, let a few minutes go by before offering a pithy comment — out of his “old Times” experience — on the “heavy burden” of secrecy:

“The heavy burden you have to hear in your inner ear in this business perfectly decent people saying, ‘Who elected you to decide what’s in the national interest?’”

Scotty Reston

That, of course, is what the Times’ highly respected elder statesman, the late James Reston — also one-time Washington Bureau Chief and then executive editor — would have said.

At times he, too, found it in the national interest to work closely with government officials to address their legitimate concerns. Although Reston broke many stories as a reporter, he recognized there could be times when discretion was required. He knew about the U-2 flights over the U.S.S.R., but refrained from writing about them until one of the plans went down in 1960.

On the other hand, Reston viewed issues of government abuse of power – like whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers (and, he surely would have included the illegal wiretapping story in this category) – not at all complicated. 

According to his Times colleague Anthony Lewis, James Reston said at one meeting, “If the Times did not publish the Pentagon Papers, he would publish them in the Vineyard Gazette,” the Martha’s Vineyard weekly that he owned.

While the Bush administration and many in the U.S. news media are fond of saying that “9/11 changed everything,” the truth is that the New York Times and the Washington Post had changed before 9/11. This came through very clearly at a National Press Club affair on June 5, 2001, marking the 30th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

It was like old-home week, in more ways than one. My former responsibilities as a CIA analyst writing about Soviet policy toward Vietnam got me invited. Many old hands were there, including Hedrick Smith of the Times, and its gutsy former general counsel James Goodale, as well as Don Oberdorfer and William Glendon from the Post

The nostalgia was thick and the stories almost uniformly of the patting-our-backs kind.  (See the excellent account of the anniversary proceedings in Inside the Pentagon Papers, edited by John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter.)

Goodale had made it clear that he saw no legal impediment to publishing the Pentagon Papers and that he would quit the Times if they did not publish Ellsberg’s documents. The same was true of other major U.S. newspapers. Old-pro Vietnam reporter for the Washington Post, Chalmers Roberts, who was approaching retirement, was quoted as telling Post management:

“If you withhold this [the Ellsberg papers], I’m not retiring; I’m quitting. And I’m going to tell the whole world why.”

Skunk at the Picnic

The scene was effusive and edifying — that is, until a woman in the back posed the $64 question about the state of the news media in 2001: “Gentlemen,” she asked, “suppose someone were to give to your former newspapers today documents equivalent to the Pentagon Papers. Would the Times and Post publish them?”

There was a very prolonged, awkward silence, after which the panelists went down the line, starting with Rick Smith, who expressed some serious doubt that they would. By the time they got down to the panelist on the end, the answer was pretty much, “No way would our papers publish that kind of ‘leak’ today.”

I looked on in some awe. There it was, right before me. The new Times and the new Post. Perhaps what struck me most was that, even though there must have been some residual inclination to paint their former employers in a favorable light, none of that came through. Indeed, none of that, apparently, seemed necessary. 

There was not the slightest tinge of regret or even embarrassment in the answers. The attitude was (to me painfully) clear: That’s just the way it is today.

And it was more than three months before 9/11.

Back at the TimesCenter

The New York Times/Ellsberg affair on Sept. 13 was supposed to run for two hours, but moderator Abramson closed it off after a little more than a half hour. Still, to her credit, she did honor an earlier promise to carve out some time for questions.

Veteran investigative journalist Robert Parry’s article of two days before, “NYT Pushes Confrontation With Iran,” was fresh in my mind.

Observing that the Times was slipping into the same kind of hysteria as it did before the 2003 attack on Iraq, Parry pointed to the Times lead editorial of Sept. 9, which concluded with this judgment:

“Tehran, predictably, insists it is not building a [nuclear] weapon. Its refusal to halt enrichment and cooperate with the I.A.E.A. [International Atomic Energy Agency] makes that ever more impossible to believe.”

Parry’s piece, and the many uncertainties attending the long-delayed update of the U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, brought me to the microphone:

“My question … has to do with Iran’s nuclear program. The facts are that 16 intelligence agencies of this government decided unanimously, with high confidence, in November 2007, that Iran stopped working on the nuclear weapons part of its nuclear program in the fall of 2003.

“We have a new intelligence director. Let’s say he comes in and says, ‘We’re going to change that estimate. We’re going to fix it around the policy. We’re going to change the final draft already agreed to [the draft of the updated estimate due this year] and we’re going to say that Iran presents a major danger and it’s imminent.’

“Now, what should an analyst who participated in this very honest process, as happened in November of 2007 —

[NYT managing editor Jill Abramson interrupts with an “Okay.”]

“What should he do? Should he go to the New York Times? Or should he go to WikiLeaks? If he goes to the New York Times there is going to be considerable delay, maybe 14 months delay.”

Got to give them credit: very quick, these New York Times people. Abramson ducked the question by turning to Ellsberg:  “What should an analyst do? And since you were an analyst, why don’t you take a cut at it,” she asked Dan.

Oh well. I guess it’s clear enough. Once again, you truth-tellers out there, don’t waste your truth on the New York Times. Sadly, that time has passed.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared and briefed the President’s Daily Brief. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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