Abramson considers post-9/11 secrecy complex detrimental to free press

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, speaks about the conflict journalists face in deciding to publish stories that may threaten issues of national security during her morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater.

“We believe in democracy; we believe in freedom; we believe in peace,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the end of his 1936 “I Hate War” address at Chautauqua. FDR was campaigning for re-election at the time, and conveyed in the speech his attitude toward the brewing international conflicts that would come to a head in World War II.

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson echoed his sentiment in the Amphitheater on Wednesday during her lecture “The Secrecy Complex and the Press in Post-9/11 America.”

Amid tensions about the role of the press in government whistleblowing, Abramson invoked themes of democracy, freedom and peace, and said that her lecture could be called “I Hate Censorship.”

Abramson, who served as the Times’ executive editor from 2011 until her controversial firing two months ago, covered Washington, D.C., for the Times beginning in 1997, a position that followed her nine-year tenure as an investigative reporter with The Wall Street Journal. The Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes under her leadership. She has authored or co-authored three books, and will teach narrative nonfiction in the English Department of Harvard University in the upcoming academic year. Her lecture was the third in this week’s morning lecture theme, “The Ethics of Privacy.”

In her long career of covering Washington and in her executive role at the Times, Abramson has frequently been charged with deciding whether to print sensitive stories, calling this dilemma a “balancing test” in which members of the press weigh national security concerns against the public’s right to know about government activities.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Abramson said, the press listened closely to the government in deciding what to print. 

“In some ways, it wasn’t complicated to make that agreement, because the press always will not reveal certain sensitive intelligence information about, for instance, troop movements,” she said. “In general, you do not publish stories where you know publishing details are going to put anybody’s life in immediate danger.”

But as the Iraq War coalesced in 2003, Abramson admitted to a failure of the press to maintain true skepticism of the government.

“The press, in some ways, let the public down,” she said. “The press, including The New York Times, I will freely say, was not skeptical enough about the so-called ‘evidence’ about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.”

The torture and prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004 was another wake-up call to the press, Abramson said. Then, in 2005, the Times ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning story that revealed warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency — a report that had been held for a year at the behest of personnel within the Bush administration. 

“Those three things, in some ways, made the press more vigilant and somewhat more aggressive about leaning in the balancing test … [of] the need to protect national security, but the need urgently to fulfill our First Amendment mandate to keep all of you informed. We leaned too far, I think, towards being too meek, going along with the government, holding back some stories and information, not being skeptical enough,” she said.

In the years since, she said, the press has pushed back against that meekness, leading to conflicts with government bodies, including the White House.

Abramson reiterated her opinion that the Obama White House is the most secretive of any presidential administration she had covered, a remark that earned her some flack from White House aides when she was still at the Times.

“There are many reasons that that’s true,” she said about Obama’s relative secrecy, explaining that, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government acted on a “natural desire to keep intelligence programs and classified documents secret.”

But the difference between President Obama and President George W. Bush, she said, is that Obama has initiated eight criminal leak investigations against whistleblowers, more than twice the number of such cases than had been made in all of U.S. history.

Bush did not initiate any.

On more than one occasion, she said, aides to Bush and Obama have even told Abramson that she would have “blood on [her] hands” if she ran certain stories in the Times. Language like this always gave her pause, she said.

“Journalists are Americans, too. I consider myself, like I’m sure many of you do, to be a patriot,” she said, citing this notion as the reason she always took grave warnings from government officials seriously.

But at the same time, even top newspaper editors don’t have total control over the flow of information, she said.

“In this era of news and information, secrets really don’t stay secret for very long anyway,” Abramson said. She outlined anecdotes that spoke to this claim. When one paper opts not to print a sensitive story like the Edward Snowden revelations, she said, another paper may still print it, or an activist group like WikiLeaks may release the information independently. 

“Even if, as executive editor of The New York Times, I decided to withhold a story, the idea that that would just keep it out of circulation is somewhat unrealistic,” she said. “In this society, information will get out.”

According to Abramson, the Founding Fathers would have preferred it that way.

“Thomas Jefferson and James Madison viewed a free press as the best way to hold the power of the government in check,” she said.

Drawing on the scholarship of the University of Chicago’s Geoffrey Stone, Abramson added that “for more than 215 years, the U.S. has flourished in the absence of any federal legislation that directly prohibits the press from publishing government secrets.” 

And that long history of a free press, she said, has not endangered American lives.

According to Stone, Abramson said, “There has not been a single instance in the history of the United States in which the press’ publication of a legitimate — but newsworthy — government secret has gravely harmed the national interest.”


Q: If you could take us inside the newsroom — you’ve talked about the balancing test, what does that balancing test look like? How formal of a process is it and who is involved in it?

A: Usually, who is involved is the top editors at the Times, and that would always be the executive editor and the managing editor. For stories involving national security and intelligence agencies, it would always be the Washington Bureau chief and the reporters who had written the story, and, as you can imagine, they rarely are arguing for a story to be held back. But in certain, very consequential stories — and this was true in the 2005 story about the warrantless NSA eavesdropping that was withheld for a year — the publisher of the New York Times was involved in that decision too. And Bill Keller, who was then the executive editor and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher, actually went to the White House and President Bush personally asked that the story be withheld. That’s rare. Usually, the deliberations involve the top editors in the newsroom and White House officials, not the president. In my day, those consultations involve sometimes the CIA director and sometimes the national security advisor too. I was, in fact, called in to see Condoleezza Rice a couple of times on stories to go over to the White House, where she made a strong case for the Times not to publish certain stories.

Q: What about the balance getting the scoop and being scooped? Why is being the first so important for the press?

A: That’s a great question, and sometimes given the speed at which even a tweet gets picked up, sometimes I did say to myself why is it so darned important because everybody knows everything — the boom effect in the media is so immediate now and so loud, but first and foremost, and again being candid with you, it’s kind of a point of pride. It’s considered, when you’re a news organization, a bit of a humiliation to be scooped. I mean, it’s terrible and thank goodness this happened very seldom at the Times that you would have a scoop to be wrong or even to have false information in it. Obviously, the worst-case scenario is being first with a wrong story or a bad story. But you get credited when you break a big story. Often, I’ll turn on NPR if I’m driving now and I’ll be happy, I’ll hear them say, “TheNew York Times reported today,” and you get credit for a big story and that is part of sort of the professional reward of being a good journalist is when you have a scoop and disclose a really important, consequential story that reverberates and you get credit for it, so that’s why.

Q: Do you have any regrets from publishing info that you later realized should have been withheld or vice versa?

A: An interesting question, and I’ve promised to be extra candid here, but I can’t think of a story that we published that I now regret, it’s all on the other side. Frankly, one of the stories I regret that we didn’t end up publishing — and this was back in 2003 — was another story by Jim Risen, and it was a story on Iran’s nuclear program. This was one where Jim and I were called to the White House a couple of times and talked to by George Tenet, the CIA director, and Rice, who was then national security advisor, and they argued back then that the story involved a nuclear scientist who was actually embedded in an undercover way inside the Iran nuclear program to actually plant a flaw, and they argued to us that the operation was ongoing and that we were going to endanger his life, and at that time I made the decision to withhold the story and Jim ended up publishing the story anyway in a book he wrote. That story is actually what’s gotten him subpoenaed in this leak case. But, looking back on it and now knowing much more about the story and having talked to Jim about it, I don’t think its true that the nuclear scientist’s life would have been in danger. I think that was hyped-up concern, and I think that what the Bush White House was trying to protect itself from was embarrassment. It turned out that this scientist wasn’t properly overseen by his minders at the CIA, the program was really kind of a fiasco and I think what the White House was really worried about was that in disclosing it the Times would embarrass them, not actually that there were all these grave circumstances, so again my regrets are more on one side of not publishing stories.

Q: Do you believe the news media is less skeptical about the current administration than previous administrations in modern history?

A: I don’t. I think that the press — I know, some Republicans complain that President Obama gets a free pass from the press. If any of them have talked recently to the people that work for President Obama, I don’t think that they feel that’s true. I think the press in general has been appropriately tough on President Obama in that, as I said earlier, I think after the whole WMD press fiasco that the press has been a better watchdog on behalf of the public then it was at that time.

Q: Almost every week, we get a story of someone who has made a statement that has offended some group, and the rage often goes viral with the press participating. Is one no longer permitted to make a mistake?

A: I was just reading a story about the poor guy who fell asleep at Yankee Stadium who fell asleep during the baseball game, and I guess ESPN, I’m not sure who was covering the game, but the camera kept going to him as he was sort of snoring in his sleep and I guess the commentators on the air were making all of these pejorative comments about this fellow who was sleeping in the stands and I think that’s an illustration of  like in this information age, nothing is private. You can’t just snooze through a baseball game and have it not necessarily broadcast on TVs. So, its terrible to say, but I think the zone of privacy that used to allow us all to embarrass ourselves, even in public, that that zone doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing for our society but I just think it’s the reality.

Q: As young journalists watch stories unfold and censorship threats increase, how should they prepare to carry those battles forward?

A: That’s a great question and I referred a minute ago to having just been in San Francisco at this IRE conference of investigative reporters and editors, and the most popular session there was a session teaching investigative journalists — many of whom were young and actually starting out in their careers — how to try to encrypt their notes because, as the AP and Fox News cases of a year ago taught us all, all journalists, that your notes, your phone call records, who you’re emailing with, who you’re calling, they can be subpoenaed and looked at by the government. So it’s fine for a novice journalist when they’re interviewing someone to say ‘I promise to keep your identity a secret. I promise to protect your anonymity. I’ll even go to jail to protect your anonymity.’ But if someone can issue a secret subpoena and see who you’ve called that doesn’t do you very much good. So my advice to anyone starting out who wants to eventually write the kinds of intelligence stories and the national security stories that I’ve been talking about this morning, I’d say find out how to really take measures to protect your records.

Q: Does the New York Times have a sustainable model  for providing online access to its content and has it been damaged by cyber hacking?

A: I do absolutely believe the New York Times has a very sustainable business model and know that both the print newspaper and the wonderful, up-to-the-minute digital news report, that both of those will remain vibrant for a really long time, so no worries on that front.

A: Actually, and I drove in from the airport with Peter, yesterday’s speaker, and I was telling him a very memorable morning as executive editor for me was my phone rang and it was the publisher on the phone and he said to me, literally, “The New York Times is now under cyber attack.” Words I never thought I would hear and what had happened is that the Times published some really fantastic stories about corruption inside the families of the Chinese government’s leadership. And the Times’ website was blocked — like seconds after we published that story — and actually the Times’ website, outrageously, has been blocked in China for the past two years. I was recently in Beijing and I could have asked for a VPN, which would enabled to me to get around the government firewall, but I actually wanted to experience what it was like to be in a country that does censor so much of communications and I couldn’t read a word of the New York Times while I was just in China. But also after we published that story, all our email and phones were hacked and we hired a firm that easily traced that the hackers were a known hacking site linked to the Chinese military. So, yes I actually know that the New York Times was actually hacked in that case but that just touches on a point I don’t want to leave unaddressed even though the question wasn’t on it directly, that one of the reasons I think it’s so important for us, for the press to be free here, and not self-censored is, like we lecture other countries all the time that do censor. We try to stand as a beacon to other countries because we do have this fabulous constitutional decree of a free press and actually I brought with me something that some of you will be able to see, but this is actually an edition of the international New York Times that was published with a huge white space. This was published, although it says the New York Times, it was published by our publishing partner in Pakistan, and that partner is subject to Pakistani law and the story was by a Times reporter and it was about what Pakistan knew about Osama Bin Laden before the Bin Laden raid. And Pakistan censors said no way, that story isn’t going in the print edition of the international New York Times. So actually it was printed with white space, and we don’t do that here, but when we have criminal leak investigations and we’re threatening to throw journalists in jail because they’re doing their jobs, it’s hard for us to really stand up for freedom of the press without people and officials in these countries saying there is, at least, an element of hypocrisy.

Q: As a female executive myself, I followed your departure from the New York Times, any advice for women leaders?

A: I do have advice, and you know you have to keep in mind — given what happened to me — that may be dangerous advice, but I think you have to stick up for your principles and you have to be forthright and you have to be honest about the calls you make. And I think, to any women in any profession, what I say is you have to be your authentic self. If you’re always second guessing yourself and worrying about being criticized in ways that perhaps a man wouldn’t be, then you’re going to pull your punches and you’re not going to do your job as brilliantly as you would so that is my advice.

Q: Do you think that your comments about Obama’s secrecy contributed to your firing?

A: I don’t. You know, I have to say that whether it was publishing these very sensitive stories about the Chinese government at the time when the New York Times was hoping — and had launched a Chinese language website — that they were hoping would be vibrant and attract advertising that was shut down too or publishing the stories based on the Snowden documents, I had the absolute backing of the Times’ leadership, so I don’t think that had anything to do with it.

Q: If you could ask Snowden any question, right now, what would it be?

A: The question I would ask him, because apparently its become known just today that he is asking for an extension for his time in Russia where he’s been giving asylum — the question I would ask him because he said he has been willing and when he worked as a consultant with top secret access to all of these NSA documents and in conscience he decided to take them and leak them because he felt these intelligence programs were so anti-democratic and so harmful to our country. I would want to ask him what he thinks about the government of Russia and Putin and whether its worth it to remain there when I think Snowden’s own reputation is a little bit stained for seeking the protection of that regime.

Q: You polled the audience earlier, do you think Snowden will be seen by history as a patriot?

A: In real time it always difficult to know how history is going to judge someone, but I do think that it was an act of conscience that made him disclose that trove of documents and that, to now, I don’t know of — and again I emphasize that all the stories haven’t come out — I can’t really point to any of the stories that have come out that I feel have really harmed the national security and in fact the New York Times just a week ago had a really good story quoting the new head of the NSA, saying that his view isn’t … like when he looks at the leak he says the sky isn’t falling, so I think its possible that history will see his act as something that was carried out in principle and in the interest of informing the American public. So I think that’s a likely verdict of history, but again the big caveat is that I just don’t know what else is going to come out and whether something that is harmful to this country will be in this trove of documents that are now in the semi-public domain in the hands of the press.

Q: We may do a poor job of it, but we do elect our government. Should we trust a journalist’s decision of what should be printed over the government?

A:  That’s a great question, too. And when I worked at the Times I was often asked the question, ‘Who elected you?’ to make these calls, but I don’t arrogantly feel that journalists are necessarily the best equipped people to make these very difficult judgments. But we do have a constitutional role in our democracy and I think in general, given certain lapses that I’ve pointed out, in general, editors do a pretty good job of fulfilling that duty. The president has a different job. The president, yes, he has to defend the entire Constitution so the First Amendment is part of what he’s defending, but he also has the responsibility to protect the country and so the government is going to make calls differently than the press does. And when some of you return to hear Alberto Gonzalez talk —he was White House counsel and attorney general during the Bush administration — I’m sure he’s going to have a very different opinion on the issues I talked about today then I do, but that is sort of each part of our institutional power fulfilling our mission.

Q: Why were you fired?

A: That is a question I’m not sure, being the person fired, I have the biggest sort of or the best perspective on. What has been publicly said by the Times by the publisher is that I was fired because of my “management style,” and to be honest with you I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

Q: In our age of multiple and eternal opinions and voices, what is your definition of truth?

A: My definition of truth. That’s an intimidating question to answer — especially in an Institution [Chautauqua] that has such a rich tradition of reading deeply and absorbing so much information and also has so much respect for religious traditions of all kinds where the definition of truth is something Chautauquans have debated over the centuries — quite literally. I believe what a journalist attempts to do is accurately report the facts and hope that the accumulation of  those facts becomes a kind of weight of evidence that at least bears a truly meaningful resemblance to the truth.

 —Transcribed by Karly Buntich