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The United States of America vs. Bill Keller

As the book’s publication loomed in the near distance (the Free Press was cagey about when exactly it would come out), Risen went back to work on the story for the Times. He was now caught between two obligations, but the Times was in an even tougher spot: If Keller again folded under the weight of White House arguments and held the story, the Times would be humiliated by Risen’s book. In a long e-mail about the origins of the spying story, Keller was adamant that the book had not been the “deciding factor” in publishing. The “conventional wisdom” that Risen’s book forced the paper to publish the story, he writes, “is bullshit.”

But he also admits, “I have tried to be careful never to say the Risen book was irrelevant. I’ve said it was a factor in reopening the discussion.” (In fact, Keller has never said that publicly before.)

According to Keller, the additional reporting in the fall of 2005 improved the story, with more people inside the government questioning the legal basis for the program. The argument over the iffy legality had grown starker, says Keller, and the fear that the Times might be relying entirely on the word of a partisan ax-grinder (which, according to sources, was originally the case) was now assuaged. As Keller wrote in an e-mail to me this summer, which he also sent to Times public editor Byron Calame, “We now had some new people who could in no way be characterized as disgruntled bureaucrats or war-on-terror doves saying we should publish. That was a big deal.”

Colleagues describe Risen and Lichtblau as vehement that the story okayed in 2005 was not fundamentally different from the one that had been rejected in 2004.

After his meeting at the White House, Keller sought out the counsel of Joe Lelyveld, whom he hadn’t spoken to in months. They had coffee together on the Upper East Side near Lelyveld’s apartment. There, Lelyveld advised Keller to publish but also not to overplay it with a big headline on page one.

On the evening of December 15, Keller called the White House to inform Bush’s aides that the NSA story was about to go up on the Times Website and that it would appear in the newspaper the next day. Two days later, Russell Tice, a former NSA intelligence analyst, requested permission to testify to Congress about his doubts about the legality of the NSA program, prompting speculation that he was a source for the Times. He has since been subpoenaed by a grand jury seeking to indict whoever leaked the story to the Times. If the prosecution requires more evidence, it could issue subpoenas to Risen and Lichtblau, prompting another legal war over the protection of sources. The Times has retained two law firms to prepare for this possibility.

Keller will never be accused of under-thinking a problem. In one of our many conversations about the NSA story, he offered a highly unusual rationale for why it took fourteen months for the story to find its way into the paper: “There was an erosion of the administration’s credibility, not just with us, but with the public,” he said, “as more and more was revealed—including in the Times, by the way—about the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war.

“As time passed,” he added, “they’ve demonstrated that they’re entitled to somewhat less benefit of the doubt.”

The effect on Keller of publishing the NSA story was clear. A month later, I saw him at a cocktail party—a rare appearance for a man whose wife calls him “socially ­autistic”—and needled him about when, in the spirit of transparency, we could expect to be told why the paper had held the NSA story for more than a year before publishing it. That same month, Calame had been stonewalled by Keller on the issue.

“We’re done with transparency for a while,” Keller told me, with a just-­perceptible smirk.

Keller now says it surprises him that other stories the paper ran didn’t have the same effect as the NSA story. He thinks the Times’ debunking of the Iraqi aluminum tubes, once thought to be proof of a nuclear program, was equally powerful. “There were a number of stories where I thought people would say, ‘Yeah, the New York Times, that’s right.’ The NSA happened to be that story, but there were a bunch of things before that I thought would be that story,” he says.

The power of the New York Times has always been tied to how it covers the biggest story in the land: the White House. The spying scoop seemed to remind Keller that Washington coverage was where the Times would be historically measured. But accepting it and liking it are two different things. The NSA story “certainly drove home the point that the Washington bureau is the paper’s megaphone,” he says. “And because Washington is Washington, it tends to be what you’ll be judged by. It’s not necessarily what I’d want the paper to be judged by.”