Risen Gave Times A Non-Disclosure On Wiretap Book

Submitted by editor on January 19, 2006 - 1:25pm.

By Gabriel Sherman
Source: NY Observer

New York Times editors published reporter James Risen’s December account of National Security Agency wiretapping without having seen the manuscript of Mr. Risen’s book on the same subject, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the events.

Ever since the appearance of Mr. Risen’s Dec. 16 piece, co-written with Eric Lichtblau, rumor and speculation have surrounded the relationship between the article and Mr. Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration, which was published early this month. The Drudge Report implied that the paper had timed the wiretapping scoop to promote Mr. Risen’s book; the Huffington Post fueled criticism on the left that The Times had stifled the story for a year out of deference to the Bush administration.

In fact, sources familiar with the Times’ Washington bureau describe a more complicated relationship than either scenario: When they decided to send the long-gestating N.S.A. piece to press in December, Times editors couldn’t confirm whether Mr. Risen’s manuscript contained the wiretapping story or not. In the end, they didn’t see the book until a week before it was in bookstores.

Through several months in late 2005, Mr. Risen and bureau chief Phil Taubman had clashed over whether Times editors would get a preview of the book’s closely guarded contents, sources said. It was not until Dec. 27—11 days after the wiretapping story had run—that Mr. Risen relented and allowed Mr. Taubman to see the manuscript. Mr. Risen insisted that senior editors who viewed the pre-publication copy sign nondisclosure agreements and agree not to discuss the book’s contents.

Both The Times and Mr. Risen continue to remain silent about the events preceding the book’s Jan. 3 publication. “I’m not going to comment on any of this,” Mr. Taubman said by phone Jan. 16, when asked about the nondisclosure agreement. Mr. Risen did not return calls seeking comment.

A Times spokesperson responded to questions about the Risen book by deferring to the paper’s Ethical Journalism Guidebook, which says reporters “must notify The Times in advance” when writing books related to their beats, “so The Times can decide whether to make a competitive bid to publish the work.”

A spokesperson for Mr. Risen’s publisher, Free Press, would not comment on who had viewed advance copies of the book, but said that the publishing house routinely asks for signed agreements under such circumstances. “In cases where the book is being considered for excerpting or the content of the book is sensitive and news-breaking, we will ask select media to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” the spokesperson said.

On Jan. 9, author James Bamford reviewed Mr. Risen’s book in The Times’ arts section. “Among the unanswered questions concerning the domestic spying story is why,” Mr. Bamford wrote, “if Mr. Risen and The Times had first come upon the explosive information a year earlier, the paper waited until just a few weeks before the release of the book to inform its readers.”

According to people with knowledge of the Washington bureau, the publication of Mr. Risen’s book was the endnote to a months-long internal struggle between Mr. Risen and Times editors over ownership of the book’s contents.

In October 2004, Mr. Risen first presented editors with a story about the secret N.S.A. wiretapping program, the sources said. Late that same year, Mr. Risen also proposed writing a piece about an alleged foiled C.I.A. plot to deliver bogus atomic-bomb plans to Iran—another story that appears in State of War.

Mr. Risen left on book leave in January 2005. According to multiple sources, he told editors he was writing a book about former C.I.A. chief George Tenet—and did not reveal that he would be using previously reported Times material about the N.S.A. wiretapping in the book.

Mr. Risen returned to the paper in June 2005. By September, rumors were circulating in the bureau that the book would contain the N.S.A. material.

Executive editor Bill Keller has said in public statements that the book was not a factor in the timing of the N.S.A. story. But sources with knowledge of the internal debate at The Times said that editors, unsure what Mr. Risen’s book might say, pressed to publish the story before the end of the year.

In public appearances promoting the book—which is currently ninth on the Times best-seller list—Mr. Risen has declined to discuss the back story of the N.S.A. piece. “I’ve agreed with the paper not to get into all the internal deliberations except to say that I think it was a great public service when we did publish it, because now we can have this debate about the substance of this issue,” Mr. Risen told Larry King on Jan. 16.

That, at least, is a point of accord between Mr. Risen and his newspaper. But his use of the book as a release valve for unpublished Times material has left his relations with the paper strained. Inside The Times, newsroom sources said, there is mounting speculation that Mr. Risen may be in negotiations to return to his former employer, the Los Angeles Times.

But any exit by Mr. Risen would carry legal considerations for The Times. Mr. Risen is among the journalists currently held in contempt in the civil case brought by former Los Alamos atomic scientist Wen Ho Lee, who is suing the government for leaking his private information to the press. The Times faces fines of $500 a day—currently stayed on appeal—for Mr. Risen’s refusal to identify the confidential sources of his Lee stories.

And on Dec. 30, the Justice Department announced a leak investigation into the disclosure of the N.S.A. program. Earlier this month, former N.S.A. official Russell Tice came forward and revealed himself to have been a source for the story, a claim that Mr. Risen and The Times have declined to confirm.

But if the Justice Department decides to press on and seek Mr. Risen’s anonymous sources, The Times could find itself facing a replay of the Judith Miller case, setting aside its differences with a reporter for the sake of a costly public court fight. This week, Ms. Miller told an audience in Florida that The Times spent $1.7 million on her legal defense.

Time magazine’s Beijing bureau-chief job, vacated during last month’s round of company layoffs, is to be filled by Simon Elegant, managing editor Jim Kelly announced Jan. 17.

Mr. Elegant is currently stationed in Kuala Lumpur, where he is a correspondent covering Southeast Asia. His move to Beijing is the first step in realigning the magazine’s foreign staff to cover the effects of December’s cost-cutting spree, which ousted the bureau chiefs in Beijing, Jerusalem, Moscow and Seoul. Earlier this month, Time Inc. also asked for volunteers among the 20 London-based staffers at Time’s international edition to take buyout packages.

Despite the appearance of an international pullback, Mr. Kelly said the layoffs don’t represent a reduction in foreign coverage. “We’re reallocating our resources,” Mr. Kelly said. “Given my overall budget, we’re not saving millions of dollars here. But I’m using my money in a smarter way.”

Still, Time has four fewer staffers overseas now, cutting the magazine’s overall presence abroad to approximately 50 staffers. And the losses come from the most experienced foreign-coverage caste.

“Each of us has been told our position has been cut,” former Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge said by phone Jan. 17. “The term they used was ‘eliminated.’”

“Henry Luce would be rolling in his grave,” a Time staffer said, describing the reductions.

Mr. Kelly said that he chose the bureau chiefs for layoffs because Time Inc. had focused December’s cuts on management.

But while bureau chiefs are technically managers—and as foreign staff, they’re not protected by the Newspaper Guild contract that covers Time’s U.S.-based editorial employees—they generally reach their slots by working as reporters. The rank and file tends to perceive them as fellow news-gatherers, not administrators.

“Foreign bureau chiefs are seasoned correspondents,” a Time staffer said. “It’s a fiction that they’re management.”

Mr. Elegant, for instance, will be moving to the Beijing chief’s chair from his correspondent position. Mr. Kelly said another staffer will be shifted to cover Mr. Elegant’s current Kuala Lumpur post.

Mr. Kelly said his foreign budget has remained the same, but the challenge of covering stories such as the Iraq war has forced him to reorganize Time’s international operations.

Gone are the days when the magazine’s ambitions made its international bureaus into posh American beachheads. The legendary palatial bureau known as “Chateau Reg” in Paris’ Eighth Arrondissement—named after late-80’s Time Inc. C.E.O. Reginald K. Brack—has been replaced by a space in the AOL building in the suburb of Neuilly. Next year, the London operation will abandon plush Brettenham House at Lancaster Gate in favor of rented space in a building housing Time Inc.’s IPC magazine division.

Mr. Kelly pointed out that Time is continuing to cover foreign stories, and is in the process of reopening a Beirut bureau for the first time since the 1980’s.

“This is really about managing a news operation in 2006,” Mr. Kelly said. “The challenges I’m dealing with are no different than the challenges that Bill Keller faces or David Remnick faces.”

Hal Espen, editor of the fleece-chic Outside magazine, announced his resignation from the adventure lifestyle monthly on Jan. 17. He will step down from his post early next month, the magazine said in a statement late Tuesday.

Mr. Espen, 50, arrived at the magazine in 1997 from The New Yorker.

Lawrence Burke, owner of the magazine, said Mr. Espen departs on amicable terms.

“I count Hal Espen as a true friend, one who has successfully guided Outside magazine,” Mr. Burke said in a statement. Mr. Burke hasn’t named a successor, and is currently searching for a new editor.

Sources familiar with Mr. Espen’s plans said that he is leaving to pursue freelance writing and will remain in Santa Fe, N.M., where Outside is based. Mr. Espen couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.

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