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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

The holding of the NSA story enraged both Risen and Licht­blau, who primarily blamed Taubman. Risen would not comment for this story, but colleagues say he told them that Taubman lacked the “balls” to publish his scoop. Both Risen and Lichtblau—as well as many other reporters in the Washington bureau—suspected Taubman’s deference to Hayden and Rice had influenced his decision and thus Keller’s. Asked about this, Keller calls it a “bum rap” and says it was his own decision to make, not Taubman’s. “The idea that he’s somehow pulling his punches to accommodate sources is just wrong,” says Keller. “I know where that’s coming from, but the decision not to publish the story early was mine. There was nobody above the rank of reporter who was arguing that we should publish it.”

Risen was beyond furious. A 51-year-old reporter who could be cranky and uncommunicative, he had clashed with his superiors on major stories before, including the Wen Ho Lee case, which concerned the Chinese scientist accused of stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory (Keller, then the managing editor, had written an editor’s note disavowing some of Risen’s reporting). In addition, Risen harbored lingering resentment of Abramson over the paper’s WMD coverage. When she was Washington bureau chief under Raines, Risen has claimed to at least two people, he offered her reporting that cast doubt on the Bush administration’s evidence about Iraq’s WMD program. At the time, Miller’s reporting was how the Times, as an extension of Raines, saw the subject. And Abramson felt powerless to fight Raines over this and other things. When Risen pressed his case, she finally told him to “get with the program,” these people say.

Abramson, a known Raines antagonist, declined to comment on that particular encounter, but in an earlier interview described the climate she was working under. “I really felt like I had barely been able to do the job, because in the Howell regime, all three of the top editors all thought they knew best about Washington,” says Abramson, “and a lot of days, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was really the bureau chief.”

(Raines, in an e-mail, responds: “If Jill skewed or suppressed stories from Jim Risen or anyone else she did so on her own hook, not as a result of any instruction or signal from me. It was a point of tension between Jill and me that we were consistently behind on weapons and intelligence stories.”)

On the NSA story, Risen called Abramson the weekend before the election, begging her to convince Keller to run it. Abramson says she “anguished” over it, eventually siding with Keller and Taubman.

For Risen, holding the NSA spying story was the final insult. After the 2004 election, communications between him and Keller’s two key advisers—Abramson and ­Taubman—effectively disintegrated. “There was no working relationship between Risen and Jill, or Risen and Phil,” says a Times person who knows Risen well. “They didn’t engage him.”

The story, of course, didn’t go away. The Times could have published it right after the election. Keller offers a curious explanation for why that didn’t happen, suggesting that the “normal process was much delayed because the lead reporter on the story went on a book leave,” as if he had disappeared off the face of the earth. According to several sources, Risen was convinced that the paper would never publish the story, and he had already signed a lucrative deal with the Free Press for a book that was originally to be about George Tenet and the CIA. According to one Times person, Risen said he’d quit if the paper didn’t allow him the leave of absence, and off he went to write his book.

In the summer of 2005, two months after Risen returned from book leave, Taubman learned from a friend of Risen’s that he planned on including a chapter in his book about the NSA eavesdropping program. Both Abramson and Taubman confronted Risen, separately, and asked him point-blank whether he was using the material for his book. People briefed on those meetings say he was “evasive” and “squirrelly.”

Privately, the editors believed that Risen, who wasn’t able to get Tenet to cooperate because he had his own book deal, was desperate to salvage his book and had used the NSA material to pad it out. Taubman was livid, telling Risen that it was against Times policy to use material obtained on the newspaper’s dime for his book without notifying the paper.

In September, shortly after his conversation with Taubman, Risen delivered the manuscript to the Free Press, including a chapter called “The Program,” detailing the government’s secret eavesdropping program and drawn from the original draft of the story Risen had filed to the Times the year before. The Free Press believed it now owned the material (and, in a comic twist, offered the Times first-serial rights).