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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

Keller then did something that angered even his supporters at the Times. As Miller’s controversial role in the case leaked out in the press, Keller took off on a preplanned twelve-day trip to the paper’s Asia bureaus. He was under intense pressure, and it was viewed by some as a convenient escape from the turmoil at home. “It was absolutely fucking awful,” recalls Gilbey, who was traveling with him. “If he had come back because of Judy—what message are you sending to the foreign desk as opposed to the Washington desk? If it had been, ‘I’ve got this one lunatic at home and I’m not coming …’ The Times has, like, a million children—well, actually only 1,200 fucking children—and they got left behind at home.”

I asked her if perhaps there wasn’t a streak of conflict avoidance in Keller. “Well,” she says, “nobody likes conflict.”

As with Sulzberger, whose father oversaw business and editorial revolutions at the paper in the early seventies, the New York Times’ burdensome history hangs over Keller’s every move. In June, when the Times celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that allowed it to publish a top-secret government file regarding the faltering war in Vietnam, Jill Abramson led a panel discussion in Washington. She told the audience that the NSA story “may very well turn out to be this generation’s Pentagon Papers” and recalled A. M. Rosenthal, the legendary executive editor of the Times who published the story and died in May, as an aggressive hero of journalism, “a gutsy, larger-than-life character, an editor perfectly matched to the historic moment.”

Was Bill Keller also a man perfectly matched to his historic moment? When I ask her this question, Abramson pauses. “I want to think about it,” she says. Not because she doubts it, she emphasizes, but because she wants to draw up the perfect response.

Sitting next to Abramson at the Pentagon Papers panel was reporter James Risen. In the fall of 2004, Risen had brought a massive scoop to his editors: Beginning in the days after September 11, he discovered, the Bush administration had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on foreign calls into the United States without court-approved warrants.

When the Times first approached the White House with the story that fall, Taubman took the lead editorial role, beginning a series of meetings with Bush officials. General Hayden, the NSA director, took him on a personal tour of the agency’s headquarters and tried to impress upon him the importance of its secret programs. Taubman also met personally with then–national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a close friend of his for more than twenty years. Six months before the 2004 election, Taubman had thrown a lavish dinner party for Rice at his house in Washington.

Shortly after Taubman was briefed by the Bush administration, Keller himself met with Rice, Hayden, and others. “I think they were shocked they were having to share this with journalists,” Keller recalls. But, sitting on a potentially explosive piece of news that could tip the presidential election to John Kerry, Keller was persuaded by the administration’s counterarguments and decided against publishing Risen’s revelations.

Asked recently if there was a defining piece of evidence that affected his decision to hold the story then, Keller said no, then took a deep breath and ­added, “The argument they made was that, even though it may seem obvious to us that they’re going to try to eavesdrop on terrorists’ phone calls, the behavior of terrorists suggested that it wasn’t obvious to them. Therefore, publishing the story would change their behavior.”

In a long, explanatory e-mail he sent me, Keller says the issue of the legality of the NSA program had not been the thrust of the original story—at least, not that he recalls. “Perhaps [the legality of the wiretaps] should have struck me earlier, perhaps it was clear to the reporters,” he writes. “In its original incarnation, I saw it as essentially a story about the methodology of counter terrorism.” In other words, Keller maintains that he did not originally grasp what the reporters considered the essence of their scoop.

The fact that the Times was suffering from a profound lack of institutional confidence also contributed to the decision to hold the story. On October 25, 2004, the Times reported on unsecured munitions left after the invasion of Iraq and was promptly slammed by the Bush administration, which vigorously questioned the story’s accuracy and scared editors so bad that Abramson worried she was going to be the next Mary Mapes, the producer of the flawed CBS News report on Bush’s National Guard service. When a Minnesota TV station broadcast video that proved the munitions story, Keller told a friend, “Thank God for that.”