Why Times Ran Wiretap Story, Defying Bush

On the afternoon of Dec. 15, New York Times executives put the paper’s preferred First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, on standby. In the pipeline for the next day’s paper was a story that President George W. Bush had specifically asked the paper not to run, revealing that the National Security Agency had been wiretapping Americans without using warrants.

The President had made the request in person, nine days before, in an Oval Office meeting with publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., executive editor Bill Keller and Washington bureau chief Phil Taubman, according to Times sources familiar with the meeting.

That Dec. 6 session with Mr. Bush was the culmination of a 14-month struggle between The Times and the White House—and a parallel struggle behind the scenes at The Times—over the wiretapping story. In the end, Mr. Abrams’ services were not needed. The piece made it to press without further incident.

But the story, which began with reporter James Risen and was eventually written by Mr. Risen and Eric Lichtblau, very nearly didn’t reach that endgame at all. In one paragraph, the piece disclosed that the White House had objected to the article—“arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations”—and that The Times had “delayed publication for a year.”

In fact, multiple Times sources said that the story had come up more than a year ago—specifically, before the 2004 election. After The Times decided not to publish it at that time, Mr. Risen went away on book leave, and his piece was shelved and regarded as dead, according to a Times source.

“I’m not going to talk about the back story to the story,” Mr. Keller said by phone on Dec. 20. “Maybe another time and another subject.”

The direct executive-branch involvement echoed a legendary—and notorious— episode in Times history, when then–Washington bureau chief James (Scotty) Reston and publisher Orvil Dryfoos, acceding to official pressure, quashed coverage of the specifics of the impending Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The infighting over that decision (and the obvious fallout from it) led to one of the paper’s first-ever episodes of public self-criticism.

But in this case, discussion of the Dec. 16 wiretap piece has been off-limits since it was published. “Someone on high told reporters not to talk about it,” a Washington bureau source said.

So The Times, after a year of being battered by scoops from competitors like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times on national-security stories, has a blockbuster of its own—but has to discuss it sotto voce, if at all.

The paper made one apparent comment on its interactions with the White House: The day the wiretap story appeared, editors assigned reporter Scott Shane to write a next-day piece about the Bush administration’s overextension of executive power.

Through a spokesperson, Mr. Sulzberger declined to comment. Managing editor Jill Abramson, Mr. Taubman, Mr. Risen and Mr. Lichtblau all declined to comment.

Mr. Risen has had difficulties in the past getting traction with Times editors on a disputed topic. In fall 2003, he unsuccessfully pressed for more skeptical coverage of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, to counterbalance the work of Judith Miller.

Mr. Risen returned from his book leave in June of 2005. He soon began agitating to revive the wiretapping piece and get it into the paper, according to bureau sources.

According to multiple Times sources, the decision to move forward with the story was accelerated by the forthcoming publication of Mr. Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

By this past fall, according to a source familiar with the matter, Mr. Taubman was in a parallel series of discussions: with senior Bush administration officials over the paper’s desire to publish the story, and with Mr. Risen over the content of the book.

Mr. Risen’s book is due out Jan. 16. The link between the timing of the book and the piece was reported by the Drudge Report the day the wiretap piece came out, with the implication that there was a promotional tie-in involved. On Dec. 20, the Los Angeles Times reported the connection and noted that the original story had predated last year’s election. That same morning, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter wrote an online piece revealing The Times’ summit with the President.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Keller dismissed the role of Mr. Risen’s book and a variety of other factors in determining when the piece would run: “The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event. We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the Administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

But Times sources said that Mr. Risen’s book does include the revelation about the secret N.S.A. surveillance program. That left Mr. Taubman and his superiors in the position of having to resolve The Times’ dispute with the administration before Mr. Risen could moot their legal and ethical concerns—and scoop his own paper.

The Free Press, Mr. Risen’s publisher, is not circulating galleys or otherwise making the content available before the book goes on sale. “We’re not giving any comments about the content of the book until the book comes out next month,” a Free Press spokesperson said.

We did not want to become another version of Talk magazine,” Mort Zuckerman said on the phone from Aspen, Colo.

It was Dec. 19, and Mr. Zuckerman was explaining his decision to pull the plug on Radar magazine. He had used the same language on the morning of Dec. 16 when he addressed the staff: He didn’t want to have another Talk.

The audience winced.

Several staffers at this latest version of Maer Roshan’s on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again magazine project had also been among those scrambling for the lifeboats in 2002, when Talk went under—including Mr. Roshan himself.

But Radar would not be Talk. Talk lasted nearly two and a half years from its publicity-splashed launch till it slipped beneath the waves. Despite a reputed $12 million investment, Mr. Zuckerman scuttled Radar (version 2.0) after a mere three issues, with the fourth finished but unprinted.

What remained, amid the flotsam, was ill will and confusion. Where had all the money gone? And why? And whose fault was it?

On Dec. 15, the day after the closure was announced, Mr. Zuckerman dispatched U.S. News president Bill Holiber and a human-resources rep to meet with the staff to discuss severance. Staffers were granted two weeks’ pay, plus another week for every six months of service—a span that the magazine itself had scarcely met. After several pointed questions, Mr. Holiber offered to arrange for Mr. Zuckerman to address the staff.

By the time Mr. Zuckerman arrived the next morning, two different versions of the story had made it into the press. The New York Times had reported that the magazine was financially moribund; Page Six had written that Mr. Zuckerman had grown disenchanted with the magazine’s sniping at his rich and powerful friends.

At the head of the conference-room table in the magazine’s 23rd Street offices, Mr. Zuckerman pressed the financial version, telling his soon-to-be-ex-employees that he could see no end to the downturn in magazine advertising and that he could not sustain Radar without a massive infusion of capital.

Mr. Zuckerman said he had told Mr. Roshan four months ago to cut costs and line up new investors.

At that, Mr. Roshan visibly shook his head in disagreement, according to a person present.

“I was never informed we would need additional investors until Nov. 2, when I was on vacation in Florida,” Mr. Roshan said by phone.

Mr. Roshan said he was then told simply to find a replacement for Mr. Zuckerman’s co-investor, Jeffrey Epstein.

“Initially, I was directed to find an investor to cover Jeffrey’s portion of Radar’s budget,” Mr. Roshan said. “A few weeks later, I was informed I’d have to find an investor to cover Mort’s portion as well. In early November, I was told I’d have a couple of months to find investors. A few days later, my deadline was reduced to a few weeks, which meant that in the midst of the holiday season, while closing this issue and trying to get ad pages up under Mort’s directive, I’d have to find investors willing to put up $10 million right away.”

“That’s total nonsense,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “… I had that conversation with Maer many times …. Four months ago, I had explicit conversations with him. I only know one language, and that’s English. I could not be clearer about it.”

Mr. Zuckerman said he had told Mr. Roshan that there wasn’t enough advertising. The magazine, he said, had only taken in about $430,000 in advertising for all three issues combined, when the business plan had projected taking in $500,000 per issue.

As for the New York Post’s account that media machers, including Mike Ovitz and David Pecker, had pressured Mr. Zuckerman to close the magazine, he said it was “total nonsense.”

“There’s only one reason, and it’s the financial reason,” he said. “I’m a little speechless about that article. It’s a little ridiculous.”

Mr. Zuckerman said he was not, however, completely satisfied with Radar’s editorial tone.

“The major articles and the major thrust of the magazine I thought were very good,” he said. “The shorter stuff was trying too hard to be humorous, and some of it came off as being nasty. And that was the part of the magazine where I had the most concern.”

The unpublished fourth issue remains in the magazine’s production department. It would have included a poll of 100 Hollywood insiders dishing on entertainment-business secrets, a profile of Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, and an interview with the singing white-supremacist twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede. The cover featured naked images representing Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, their privates hidden by a film-scene clapper.

—G.S. Why Times Ran Wiretap Story, Defying Bush