On Tuesday, Jan. 3, New York Times reporter James Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, arrived in bookstores.
Usually when a reporter’s book hits the shelves, it’s an occasion to congratulate him for his coverage, and his paper for printing the stories on which the book is based.
This book, which appears to end a multi-week race between The Times and Simon & Schuster’s Free Press to get juicy national-security scoops into print, is different.
It’s the capstone for public criticism of The Times’ decision to sit for more than a year on Mr. Risen’s biggest scoop: the news that the National Security Agency has been conducting warrantless domestic espionage through wiretaps, which the paper finally published in the first of a series of stories on Dec. 16.
What’s more, the book raises the question of how much of Mr. Risen’s material—about W.M.D., for instance—was in The Times’ hands but kept out of print until the arrival of State of War.
The Times’ becalmed post–Judy Miller positioning notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine the paper’s explanation for its W.M.D. bungle—which was largely attributed to Ms. Miller’s bad sources—holding water if reporting from Mr. Risen was coming in at the same time that tended to contradict her accounts.
Certainly, his reporting on W.M.D. as it appears in State of War does just that.
Call him the Anti-Woodward: Though the Washington Post reporter made famous in the Watergate scandal received information about Plamegate, he kept it from his editors. But Mr. Risen, according to several sources at The Times, couldn’t get his material into the paper fast enough. It’s impossible to tell what material Mr. Risen had on W.M.D. while working the national-security beat in 2002 and 2003. Either way, however, the material he has gathered for this book, while keeping his reporting position at The Times, is some stunning stuff.
Indeed, as The Times began to roll out the wiretap stories in anticipation of the publication of this book, there appeared to be a frantic parallel motion on the part of Simon & Schuster and Free Press to get Mr. Risen’s book into bookstores.
On Dec. 16, the day that the first of Mr. Risen’s (and co-reporter Eric Lichtblau’s) wiretap stories appeared in The Times, the publisher announced a Jan. 16 publication date and promised in a press release that as “[e]xplosive and disturbing as this story is … it is just the tip of the iceberg, and only one chapter,” of Mr. Risen’s book.
In fact, these stories emerge in the book’s most sensational chapter, called “The Program.” But by Dec. 28, The Times had printed several other installments of the wiretap story, including a report that there was a vast data-mining operation underway at the N.S.A.—some of which are included in the book.
Free Press again moved the publication date forward, to Jan. 3. The date was moved a third time, to Jan. 5, last weekend to prevent possible distribution problems, according to the publisher. In the meantime, Mr. Risen began an intense media push, appearing on the Today show on the morning of Jan. 3, with appearances planned for the NBC Nightly News that evening and the CBS Early Show the next day.
“We had concerns. It was originally moved up to Jan. 3 because the Times story had broken and there was large book-seller and media demand,” said Free Press publicist Carisa Hays, adding that the initial print run is going to be 250,000 copies. “Our phone was ringing off the hook.”
However, Ms. Hays was insistent that The Times’ publication of Mr. Risen’s explosive wiretap reporting had no influence over the book’s publication date: “It had nothing to do with The New York Times,” she said. “We waited until the book was ready and then we published it.”
Which leaves open the possibility that the publisher had set the original Jan. 16 date on its own schedule and The Times, which hoped to avert an embarrassing Washington Post–Deep Throat scenario, tried to throw as much of Mr. Risen’s wiretapping reporting into the paper as possible before the looming deadline.
For his part, Mr. Risen isn’t peeling away the layers of intrigue surrounding his wiretap bombshell. On Jan. 3, Mr. Risen appeared on Today and declined to reveal the terms of The Times’ decision to delay publication of his story with Katie Couric, saying, “I’ve agreed with the paper not to discuss the internal deliberations.”
The book itself is rather slim, with a garish red cover that brings to mind an old Andreas Serrano photograph. One particularly intriguing chapter, called “The Hunt For WMD,” recounts one C.I.A. attempt that was made to determine whether Iraq was developing nuclear weapons in the summer and fall of 2002. Many of the details of the story didn’t ever appear in The Times.
According to Mr. Risen’s book, a C.I.A. agent approached a middle-aged woman named Sawsan Alhaddad, an Iraqi-born doctor living in Cleveland who had left Iraq in 1979, with a top-secret mission. The C.I.A. asked her to travel to Baghdad to extract information from her brother, who was believed to be a “key figure” in Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program. Ms. Alhaddad did, and was told in no uncertain terms by her brother that Saddam’s nuclear program “has been dead since 1991.” Later, “CIA officials ignored the evidence” from Ms. Alhaddad and many family members of other Iraqi weapons scientists who’d been sent on similar missions, Mr. Risen writes. The chapter ends with her brother watching Colin Powell’s February 2003 televised presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction with shock.
While this was going on, Mr. Risen writes, “The White House drumbeat on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction kept building that summer. It was filling the front pages and the airwaves …. ” Later in the chapter, he writes, “[T]o ratchet up the pressure, the Bush administration leaked information to the American press,” specifically mentioning a Sept. 8 story that was published in The New York Times airing evidence that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes purportedly for nuclear-weapons purposes. (The piece was written by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller.)
Questions about whether Mr. Risen had conducted all of the reporting for this chapter while on the national-security beat at The Times in 2002 and 2003 (while stories outlining evidence of Iraq’s W.M.D. program appeared in the paper) have not yet been asked or answered. But according to current and former Times sources familiar with the Washington bureau, Mr. Risen was gathering reporting from sources in the prewar period that cast a skeptical light on Saddam Hussein’s alleged W.M.D. stockpiles, but either couldn’t get his stories in the paper or else found them buried on the inside pages.
Jill Abramson, then The Times’ Washington bureau chief, didn’t return a call and an e-mail seeking comment. A Times spokesperson declined to provide comment beyond executive editor Bill Keller’s earlier statements on the wiretapping story.
Another chapter in State of War that refers to efforts by the C.I.A. to establish secret prisons causes one to wonder whether Mr. Risen was pursuing this line of reporting at his day job—one that didn’t make it into the paper as well.
Neither Mr. Risen nor Ms. Abramson has responded to questions about whether Mr. Risen’s material might have been kept from the paper. And surely there are plenty of plausible reasons The Times might not have published any individual story. After all, the standard of reporting in a newspaper can often be higher than that for a book.
But according to multiple newsroom sources close to Mr. Risen, the reporter was vocal in his desire to get the wiretapping piece into print, and he informed Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman that the material would be appearing in his book. Mr. Risen left the paper on book leave in January 2005 and resumed his campaign to get The Times to publish the wiretapping piece when he returned to the bureau last June. That set off a renewed push by The Times to get the story into print. Mr. Taubman resumed discussions with senior Bush administration officials over the paper’s interest in publishing the scoop, according to sources with knowledge of the events, culminating in the Dec. 6 Oval Office face-off pitting President George W. Bush against Mr. Keller, Mr. Taubman and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Inside The Times, there is speculation that Mr. Risen may pursue opportunities outside the paper. He joined The Times in 1998 from a position with the Los Angeles Times. A source close to Mr. Risen said he has been in talks with his former paper in the past several weeks.
Douglas Frantz, the Los Angeles Times’ managing editor, declined to discuss personnel matters.
“I think Jim Risen is a wonderful reporter, and I think the N.S.A. story is one of the most important of the past few years,” said Mr. Frantz.
Mr. Risen has entertained options outside The Times before. Shortly after 9/11, Mr. Risen discussed a position with then–Time magazine Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy, according to a source with knowledge of the events. Mr. Risen ultimately decided to stay at The Times.
Mr. Risen didn’t return a call requesting comment.
His book ends on a slightly ominous note. In the last chapter, he describes a massive error committed in 2004 by a C.I.A. officer charged with handling communications with the agency’s spies in Iran. After a mistaken data transmission, a double agent handed over the names of all the C.I.A.’s operatives in Iran to Iranian security officials, who went and arrested many of them. It left the C.I.A. virtually unable to gather intelligence about nuclear activities in Iran. Mr. Risen describes the incident as an “espionage disaster” that, “of course, was not reported in the press.”
For the first time in four years, the Pulitzer-winning husband-and-wife team of Peter Kann and Karen Elliot House won’t hold the most senior positions at The Wall Street Journal.
In a press release issued by the company on Jan. 3, Mr. Kann, Dow Jones’ chairman and chief executive since 1991, announced that he would shed the executive title and retire from the board in 2007, at the mandatory retirement age of 65. His wife, Ms. House, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, announced her retirement from the paper after a short transition phase.
In the same release, the company said that 47-year-old chief operating officer Richard Zannino—a former Liz Claiborne and Saks executive with no media experience outside of Dow Jones—would get Mr. Kann’s chief-executive title. Inside the Journal newsroom, Mr. Zannino’s appointment was seen as a signal that the board—and the controlling Bancroft family—is putting its faith in a bean counter to revive Dow Jones’ fortunes.
“The board of directors evaluated a number of candidates …. Rich Zannino and Karen House mutually agreed that Ms. House would retire after 32 years of dedicated and valuable service to Dow Jones and The Journal,” a spokesperson said.
It’s a break with the paper’s tradition of promoting newsroom figures into senior management positions.
Journal staffers warily greeted the announcement of Mr. Zannino’s promotion.
“Maybe there is some bizarre irony that a guy who knows how to sell pantyhose can run the company well enough to have some collateral benefit in lifting the news operations,” one staffer said.
“It’s a surprise to the newsroom; he’s always viewed as an outsider,” another staffer said.
Later this year, IAPE 1096, the union representing some 2,000 Dow Jones employees, will open bargaining talks with Dow Jones management. Steven Yount, the newly elected IAPE president, said Mr. Zannino needs to show the union membership that he’s focused on maintaining The Journal’s journalistic integrity.
“The most important thing that Dow Jones has to do now is to make sure it maintains that commitment to outstanding journalism,” Mr. Yount said. “We’re hoping that Rich Zannino will understand he can’t try to balance the books at The Wall Street Journal on the backs of the employees. There’s always the fear that when you have someone whose background is financial rather than journalism, it’ll be a harder argument to convince them of that.”
In December, a New York Times Washington bureau staffer posted a Securities Exchange Commission document on the bureau’s bulletin board.
The document, however, was promptly removed by bureau chief Philip Taubman. According to a source, Mr. Taubman told a staffer that he “didn’t want to see it on Romenesko,” meaning the journalism news Web site maintained by the Poynter Institute and Jim Romenesko.
This S.E.C. document declared the 2005 stock package for Times chief executive Janet Robinson. Ms. Robinson’s stock award, the document shows, was 74,000 shares of New York Times stock—worth nearly $2 million as of this week’s trading. Ms. Robinson also received 149,000 stock options worth about $4 million.
Other Times employees won’t make out nearly as well.
Around Christmas, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller sent a memo regarding annual bonuses to the paper’s senior editors. The information he shared wasn’t much of a surprise to those who might have been paying attention to the company’s performance in 2005, as the bonus amount is—at least in part—dependent on the paper’s financial performance in that year.
A year ago—on Jan. 3, 2005—Times stock closed at 47.2. On Jan. 3, 2006, the stock was trading at a day’s low of 26.16. Also, in 2005 the New York Times Company announced the layoffs of approximately 700 positions.
According to Times sources, the yearly bonuses—given to section editors and selected senior staff—can be equivalent to 20 percent of their salary or even more. Mr. Keller’s memo informed the senior staff that the 2005 bonuses, which will be issued in February, will be lower than the potential maximum.
So the real surprise to staffers was, instead, the generous holiday handouts on the paper’s 14th floor.
In addition to Ms. Robinson’s 74,000 shares of free Class A stock, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. received 30,000 shares, worth a bit less than $800,000, plus stock options worth about $4.1 million.
Other stock-package recipients include senior vice president Martin Nisenholtz (8,000 shares, a bit more than $200,000) and vice president for corporate communications Catherine Mathis (1,750 shares, worth just under $50,000). Chief financial officer Leonard Forman, president Scott Heekin Canedy, and vice chairman and International Herald Tribune publisher Michael Golden all received 12,000 shares, worth a bit more than $300,000.
The news of executive stock gifts rankled some Times newsroom staffers, who are still smarting from the paper’s layoffs, hiring freeze, reduced expense policy and—most galling—the cancellation in December of The Times’ 15 percent discount for employees on stock purchases.
Ms. Mathis, in her capacity as Times spokeswoman, described the stock as part of a compensation package designed to retain and motivate senior managers, and noted that the compensation committee of the board of directors had hired an outside compensation consultant. “For many of our executives, including Ms. Robinson,” Ms. Mathis wrote in an e-mail, “compensation had fallen behind the mid-range benchmark we use.”