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New York Times under fire for spiking NSA leaks story in 2004

White House told paper's editors it would be 'dangerous' to run the story

The New York Times is under fire for bowing to White House pressure and spiking a 2004 article that would have unveiled crucial aspects of the National Security Agency’s domestic spy program, according to an episode of PBS Frontline.

“United States of Secrets,” which aired Tuesday, spotlighted the decision by New York Times then- executive editor Bill Keller to kill the story that would have exposed the warrantless surveillance of millions of Americans.

That decision delayed the spying revelations until the summer of 2013, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the agency’s spying techniques to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald — igniting international controversy.

Click for more coverage of the NSA leaks

Dubbed “The Program,” the NSA domestic surveillance program was authorized by former president George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Frontline reported. Some high-level NSA and Justice Department officials objected to the program, calling it illegal and unconstitutional.

In spring 2004, Justice Department attorney Thomas Tamm made an anonymous call to Times reporter Eric Lichtblau after learning of the program. Tamm worked in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court — set up as an NSA watchdog to ensure its surveillance programs were legal — where he saw references to wiretaps and information that hadn’t come through FISA warrants.

“The law specifically said that if you didn’t go through the court, you were committing a federal felony,” Tamm told Frontline.

After Tamm’s call to Lichtblau, another Times reporter, James Risen, who also had knowledge of the spy program, made a call to then-NSA director Michael Hayden, Frontline reported. Risen told him he knew about the warrantless wire tapping program targeting Americans. Hayden reportedly hung up abruptly. Soon after, the White House demanded a series of meetings with the paper.

Recalling the meetings, Philip Taubman — the D.C. bureau chief at the time — described them as “Orweillian,” adding that Bush administration officials would only speak in hypotheticals: “If the U.S. had such a program, we would request that the New York Times not publish any information about it."

“We argued that this was really important, that our sources were telling us it was illegal or unconstitutional, that there were clearly people in the government who disagreed with what the government — what officials were saying to the editors,” Lichtblau told Frontline.

Their editors disagreed and the story did not run.

That fall the Bush administration invited top Times editors to a closed-door meeting where Keller met with the president’s top advisers. They told Keller, according to Frontline, that revealing the existence of the program would endanger national security.

“I had a consensus of everybody that we had contact with in the administration that this would be an extremely dangerous thing to do,” Keller said. “These were, you know, serious people, a consensus across the board of those who talked to us that it was going to be dangerous, a level of stridency that was quite impressive, and you know, after much discussion, decided that we weren’t ready to go with it.”

It wasn’t until December 2005 that the Times decided to run a story on the domestic program. However, the newspaper only did so after Risen threatened to publish the information independently.

In his public response, Bush minimized the scale of the program, saying the NSA only targeted people with terrorist links — as opposed to mass, dragnet surveillance — and succeeded in misleading the American public about the extent of the program, Frontline reported.

Bush said it was “consistent with U.S. law and the constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with links to Al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.” There was no mention of the NSA tracking phone calls or emails inside of the U.S., and Hayden even went so far as to dismiss the idea that there had been any internal dissent over the program.

The New York Times did not reply to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

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