THE NEW YORK TIMES VS. COMMON DECENCY
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published an exciting story about how the CIA broke 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaik Mohammed. The hero of the story was a nondescript CIA interrogator who astonished his CIA colleagues by eliciting enormous amounts of valuable information from KSM, all by using psychological ploys and developing a rapport with the terrorist rather than the tactics used by the “knuckledraggers” as the interrogator’s colleagues called the CIA paramilitary types, who were using waterboarding and other methods of torture.
As Allah points out, the story in the Times was not about the interrogator but rather the US government’s stumbling about in the post 9/11 intelligence climate searching for a counter terrorism strategy. Why then, did the Times reporter Scott Shane, his Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, and executive editor Bill Keller decide to include the real last name of the interrogator when publishing the story?
An editor’s note published with the article explaining the decision to out the interrogator is self serving twaddle:
The Central Intelligence Agency asked The New York Times not to publish the name of Deuce Martinez, an interrogator who questioned Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other high-level Al Qaeda prisoners, saying that to identify Mr. Martinez would invade his privacy and put him at risk of retaliation from terrorists or harassment from critics of the agency.
After discussion with agency officials and a lawyer for Mr. Martinez, the newspaper declined the request, noting that Mr. Martinez had never worked under cover and that others involved in the campaign against Al Qaeda have been named in news stories and books. The editors judged that the name was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article.
The Times’s policy is to withhold the name of a news subject only very rarely, most often in the case of victims of sexual assault or intelligence officers operating under cover.
revealed today by Times “Public Editor” Clark Hoyt, is even more shocking in its implications. What it reveals about the people who make such decisions at the highest editorial level at the Times is that quite simply, they do not believe that al-Qaeda poses much of a threat to individuals and, by extension, the United States.
And beyond the security calculations made on behalf of the interrogator by those noted terrorism experts Bill Keller and Dean Basquet, there is the extraordinary lack of common decency in deliberately and knowingly placing someone’s life and the lives of his family in danger. This is especially true when you consider that the story would have gotten along just fine without us knowing the real name of the interrogator.
This raises a couple of other questions, none of which would flatter the editorial leadership at the Times. Are they so enamored of their own policies and rules governing the naming of names that they got caught up in a fight to identify a non-covert employee of the CIA at the expense of his safety? Did Keller et al sacrifice common sense and common decency on the altar of corporate inflexibility rather than bend the rules to accommodate a special situation?
I do not ascribe wicked ulterior motives to the Times outing of the interrogator. I believe it much more likely that the bureaucrats and lawyers at the Times insisted on following established policy – the God of the small minded – instead of making an exception in the interrogator’s case.
Clark Hoyt’s non-explanation of why the interrogator’s name remained in the story despite entreaties made by DCIA Hayden and the interrogator’s personal attorney, the high-powered, well connected Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, is more incredible than the “Editor’s Note” that appeared in the original story. Note the lack of empathy for the interrogator’s concerns for his safety and that of his family as well as the disingenuous of the explanations:
Shane said he had sought the C.I.A.’s cooperation in reporting the story but was rebuffed by the agency and by Martinez, who now works for a private contractor. After Shane contacted friends and associates of Martinez and sought an interview with him, Mark Mansfield, the C.I.A.’s director of public affairs, sent a strongly worded letter to Dean Baquet, The Times’s Washington bureau chief. Naming the interrogator “would be reckless and irresponsible,” Mansfield said, and “could endanger the lives of this American and his family” by making them Qaeda targets. And in the “poisoned atmosphere” of the debate over the C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques, Mansfield wrote, Martinez could be “vulnerable to any misguided person who believes they need to confront ‘torture’ directly.”
Baquet asked for a meeting to discuss the C.I.A.’s request. Mansfield refused. He told me the letter said it all and nothing could be accomplished by a meeting. But to Baquet, Shane and Rebecca Corbett, the editor of the story, the refusal suggested that the C.I.A. was not actually that concerned. The Times has been asked before by the C.I.A. to withhold information — it has sometimes agreed, sometimes refused — and serious requests have usually come from the top of the agency, with an opportunity to discuss them.
But the reporter and editors said they were still worried about Martinez’s fears and tried to assess how realistic they were. Shane said he repeatedly pressed the C.I.A. for more information. He called John Kiriakou, a former covert operative who was the first to question another top Qaeda terrorist, Abu Zubaydah. Kiriakou voluntarily went public last December, and Shane wanted to know what happened. Kiriakou mentioned a death threat published in Pakistan and didn’t go into much more detail. Kiriakou said he advised Shane not to use the name.
The Times was not looking for a reason to keep the name of the interrogator quiet. They were looking for justification to publish it. When the CIA
wouldn’t give it to them, they went outside the agency and were told exactly the same thing – publishing the name would put the man and his family in danger.
How much danger? Here is what the former agent told Hoyt about what happened when his name became known:
When I asked Kiriakou for full details about his experience, he said he received more than a dozen death threats, many of them crank. His house was put under police guard and he took his family to Mexico for two weeks after the C.I.A. advised him to get out of town for a while. He said he lost his job with a major accounting firm because executives expressed fear that Al Qaeda could attack its offices to get him, though Kiriakou considered that fear unreasonable.
Apparently, the Times brain trust did not press Kiriakou for these details because they simply didn’t want to hear them. Our brave Public Editor did not see fit to criticize his colleagues for this gross negligence.
Finally, the last leg of the Times case for publishing the name was cut from under them (“serious requests have usually come from the top of the agency, with an opportunity to discuss them…”) when the DCIA calling Bill Keller to plead the interrogator’s case:
[name redacted] hired a Washington super-lawyer, Robert Bennett, to plead his case. With the story two days from publication, Gen. Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, called Bill Keller, The Times’s executive editor. Keller said Hayden acknowledged that he did not know of any specific threat to [name redacted] or of any Qaeda hit list. But Hayden said that naming [name redacted] could subject him to harassment or even put him in danger. Keller said, “I had this impression that he was doing it out of respect for [name redacted] and his family’s concerns more than a concern the C.I.A. had.”
Through his spokesman, Hayden agreed with Keller’s description of what was said but disagreed with the editor’s interpretation of the call. Hayden was “extremely disappointed” in the newspaper’s decision, Mansfield said.
Keller’s “impression” that Hayden wasn’t serious about trying to protect the interrogator is a breathtaking example of journalistic arrogance. With that kind of insight, Keller should be transferred to the Business Section and made into a stock touter. Instead, it is clear that the Times editors placed the interrogator’s safety as a secondary concern while trying to justify their decision to name him.
What kind of fallout can the interrogator expect?
The Times and other news organizations have been asked over the years to withhold stories for fear of harm. And they have done so when a persuasive case has been made that the danger — whether to national security or an individual — is real and imminent. In this case, there is no history of Al Qaeda hunting down individuals in the United States for retribution. It prefers dramatic attacks that kill indiscriminately. And The Times took reasonable precautions to prevent Martinez from being easily found.
Bennett said The Times did “a terrible thing.” He said Martinez had been threatened repeatedly by Mohammed and others he interrogated but they did not know his identity. Now their friends do, at least to some degree. Martinez has received no threats since the article was published. Shane, on the other hand, has received abusive e-mail bordering on the threatening.
I understand how readers can think that if there is any risk at all, a person like Martinez should never be identified. But going in that direction, especially in this age of increasing government secrecy, would leave news organizations hobbled when trying to tell the public about some of the government’s most important and controversial actions.
Of all the self serving tripe contained in this backstory, the notion that there is no threat because al Qaeda hasn’t gone after individuals yet is perhaps the most ridiculous. It suicidally underestimates the capabilities of our adversary while giving the paper another “out” when it comes to responsibility if anything does happen to the interrogator. “How could we possibly have known they would kill the guy? They had never done it before…” would make an excellent lead editorial if, God forbid, al-Qaeda makes good on its threats.
And poor little Shane! He’s been getting “abusive” (name calling) emails “bordering” on being threats. What shameless sophistry from Hoyt. To try and equate an al-Qaeda threat with that of some internet magpie is patently stupid and transparent in the extreme. It is perhaps revealing of how the Times editors actually view the War on Terror that they would compare al-Qaeda to an anonymous web rabble rouser.
And in a case like this, it is up to the paper to prove how it would be “hobbled” if they published an alias for the interrogator rather than mention him by name – not the other way around where the subject of the story must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be in danger if his name was published. That is perhaps the most telling proof of hubris on the part of the Times. In their little cocoon of arrogance and self importance, they place the life of a man on a scale and weigh it against their own petty policies and personal notion of the public’s “right to know.”
The fact that the interrogator was no longer with the agency and therefore was being punished with notoriety years after he had served his country honorably shows that the Times concerns were not with national security or the personal security of the interrogator but rather with their own warped view of journalistic standards that apparently brook no revision – even if it could cost someone’s life.
Hoyt never bothers to criticize any of his colleagues in this story. He accepts their “explanations” – some of which are outrageously inapt – at face value with no comment on whether they pass the smell test. To my mind, the excuses made by Keller, Shane, and Baquet stink – reason enough to bring down disapprobation on the Times, their editorial staff, and most especially, their Public Editor who once again has failed to do his job.