New York Times Editor Reveals "Why We Publish Secrets

Since 9/11 citizens and journalists have found it increasingly difficult to obtain public information, with government officials citing national security as a rationale for blocked access. In 2005 the New York Times broke a story about the Bush administration's Terrorist Surveillance Program, which authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on citizens without their knowledge and without warrants.

Phillip Taubman, who serves as associate editor and national security correspondent for the Times, said that prior to the story's publication, he and other Times editors had been invited to the White House -- through the back door -- for a private meeting with President Bush, who warned the article would put citizens at risk.

In response, Times reporters quietly gathered more evidence, uncovering dissension on the issue among top policy makers. (Their sources risked their careers and are still under investigation and threat of jail time.) "Our deliberations were extremely cautious and deliberate," Taubman said. "These are the most difficult decisions editors make. I'm not agnostic about the threats to the nation or the need for protection -- I lived close to the Trade Towers at the time of the 9/11 attack -- but we must do so in accordance with American liberties.

"The story's publication generated an explosive public debate about the limits of presidential authority and the balance between security and liberty," the Times editor said. "Many people were upset about the encroachment on protected rights, and the controversy still rages, with Congress debating the program even this week." The reporting won a Pulitzer Prize.

Not everything is fit to print, Taubman said, especially in wartime. And when Thomas Jefferson said that American liberties must be protected by the freedom of the press, he and other founders could scarcely have envisioned how to apply that principle in a modern complicated world. "But a free press is essential to maintaining the equilibrium between government and citizens. That's a social compact that's animated American democracy since the beginning of the country.

"One of the largest threats to the press right now is that the 24-hour news cycle has now been reduced to the 24-second news cycle," said Taubman. "People are attracted to celebrity tabloid news, where Britney Spears is more important than the U.S. relationship with Russia. It's a regrettable pattern in news reporting. We need information to make decisions as citizens."

The lecture was sponsored by the Associated Students of Willamette University in partnership with USA Today's Collegiate Readership Program.

Taubman covered the first turbulent years of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as the NYT bureau chief in Moscow and broke the story about the tangled finances of Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter's budget director, in an article for Time magazine. Author of Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage, Taubman has received two George Polk Awards for investigative reporting.

See a related story by Tatiana Mac '08 in the Willamette student newsletter, the Collegian (Oct. 24).