At White House Behest, New York Times Withholds Story

Newspaper Knew About Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Security Concerns for Three Years

The New York Times reported in a Nov. 18, 2007 story about U.S. efforts to aid Pakistan nuclear arms security that some details of the story had been held for more than three years at the request of the Bush administration.

The front-page story, titled “U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms” and authored by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, reported that since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent almost $100 million developing a “highly classified program” meant to help Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf secure his nuclear warheads and laboratories. According to the story, the program has included “a raft of equipment – from helicopters to night-vision goggles to nuclear detection equipment.” However, U.S. officials eventually opted not to share one facet of American nuclear protection technology, “permissive action links,” or PALs, a system which keeps a weapon from detonating without proper codes and authorizations.

Paragraph 11 of the story said, “The New York Times has known details of the secret program for more than three years, based on interviews with a range of American officials and nuclear experts, some of whom were concerned that Pakistan’s arsenal remained vulnerable. The newspaper agreed to delay publication of the article after considering a request from the Bush administration, which argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons.”

The story reported that recent instability in Pakistan and open discussion of the program in the media and by Pakistani officials led the Times to inform the Bush administration it was “reopening its examination” of the program. “[T]he White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld,” the story reported.

This is the second major story in recent years that the Times has said it withheld out of deference to the Bush administration. In December 2005 the Times reported that it had withheld a story revealing a secret warrantless domestic wiretapping program for more than a year upon a similar White House request. (See “New York Times Held Story About Domestic Spying Program Over a Year” in the Winter 2006 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)

The most recent revelation raised questions about why the newspaper agreed to sit on the story at the Bush administration’s request, even as other news organizations reported on the U.S.-Pakistan nuclear security plan.

According to a Dec. 4, 2007 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) story by Clint Hendler, the Times’ decision to continue holding the story until late 2007 is “odd,” because “the biggest points” of the November 18 Times story were reported in 2004 by NBC Nightly News and in 2006 by The New Yorker.

According to Hendler’s story, an NBC Nightly News “exclusive” in February 2004 reported that the United States was cooperating with Pakistan and spending millions to protect its nuclear weapons. CJR said, “some of that money, NBC reported, was helping the Pakistanis develop ‘secret authorization codes’ – a vernacular phrase experts would know meant PALs.”

In February 2006, Steve Coll wrote about the plan for The New Yorker, CJR reported. The New Yorker article did not say Pakistan had accepted the aid. However, CJR said “it described, in about as much detail as the Times would 21 months later, the sort of basic … equipment … being offered, and also described administration struggles over the legality of going further and sharing PALs.” Coll’s story is available online at http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/02/13/060213fa_fact_coll.

CJR reported December 4 that The New York Times did not provide an explanation for its decisions to hold the story or to subsequently publish, despite “repeated” requests for comment. However, Times reporter David Sanger spoke with Michael Calderone, a staff writer for the blog Politico, for a Nov. 20, 2007 story. Sanger said Pakistani officials had made statements about the program since 2004, and “the new questions the turmoil in Pakistan raised about security of the arsenal warranted a reconsideration of our previous decisions to delay publication.”

Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, who has held that position since March 2007, told Politico he was not in a position to judge the circumstances faced by his predecessor, Philip Taubman, describing 2004 as “a completely different era.”

Politico said that Gordon Johndroe, White House National Security Council spokesman, said the administration originally asked the Times to hold the story because “it was determined in 2004 that publication of the information would be harmful.” The request was subsequently dropped, Johndroe said, because details of the secret program have “slowly, over time, become more public. … There was no point in still maintaining our objection to publication,” Johndroe said.

The Times apparently knew about the secret U.S.-Pakistani PALs talks since 2004. According to CJR, such talks might violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which in many cases prohibits the transfer of nuclear knowledge and technology.

CJR said George Bunn, a nuclear law expert who helped draft the NPT as the top lawyer at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, said that the treaty is unclear about whether such assistance is legal. However, CJR said Bunn thinks the multinational Nuclear Suppliers Group “would never approve” such talks, and he’s “reasonably confident” that other strictures in U.S. law and international agreements would also prohibit it.

According to CJR, New Yorker reporter Coll said administration officials worried that if the U.S.-Pakistani talks were considered a violation of the NPT, it would limit U.S. diplomatic leverage with Iran. “It’s not a trivial point, violating the NPT,” Coll said.

According to CJR, “if the Times knew that PALs information had been exchanged with Pakistan, as seems likely, that means the paper deprived its readers of a chance to learn about a potential violation … by the Bush administration of U.S. laws and international nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

According to Politico, however, Baquet said that if the administration had again raised concerns about publishing the November 18 story, “we would have just pushed them aside,” adding, “I think the news value was just so powerful.”

– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 14, 2009 4:07 PM.

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