BLOGGING IN THE DARK. Byron Calame's first real column as the New York Times public editor is about the limits of blogging, though he doesn't explicitly say that. He takes on the Times' recent piece on Aero Contractors, a CIA-affiliated airline that has apparently been used to fly terrorism suspects to countries where they can be tortured.
A striking number of readers have denounced The New York Times for describing the Central Intelligence Agency's covert air operations for transporting suspected terrorists in a Page 1 article on May 31....
The generally strident e-mail messages demanded to know why The Times had decided to publish information that the readers believe will aid terrorists and make life in the United States less safe for everyone - especially the people carrying out the operation. Most of them didn't seem to be aware that the once-secret air operations had been mentioned in earlier articles and broadcasts elsewhere.
As you can imagine, the story has also been a cause célèbre among conservative bloggers. This blog entry on Just One Minute pulls together a lot of the anger. The weirdest line: "Yes, I find it very suspicious that this story comes out immediately after the arrest of Oliver Stone. A warning shot?"
Anyway, you get the idea: the conservative critique is that the Times exposed an ongoing CIA operation aimed at quashing terrorist operations. Thus, the argument goes, the Times has dealt a serious setback to the war against terrorism.
But wait. As Calame observes, the Times article had little in the way of real news. Rather, it pulled together previous reporting on the subject. Essentially it was the sort of "all known facts" article beloved by editors at the Times. Then there was this bombshell, from reporter Scott Shane, who e-mailed to Calame: "[A] summary of the planned story was provided to the C.I.A. several days prior to publication, and no request was made to withhold any of its contents."
Calame rightly pounces on this as the heart of what this manufactured dispute is all about. He writes:
Since the article was not published until five days after the summary was sent to the agency, the C.I.A. had ample time to protest to the reporting team or to top editors at The Times. But Jill Abramson, a managing editor who was among the top editors who approved of pursuing the project and who later cleared it for publication, said the C.I.A. never made even a "request to discuss" the article before it was published. Nor have there been complaints from the agency since the article was published, she said.
In other words, conservative outrage over the Times article is much ado about absolutely nothing.
But as I said, this is about the limits of blogging. In fact, based strictly on what had been published, and without knowing the inside machinations, the conservatives had a legitimate case to make. It's only after we learn that the Times had taken the extra step of checking with the CIA that the conservatives' case falls apart. That's the problem with blogs, including, at times, this one: what news organizations publish or broadcast is fair game. But when a blogger comments on a story without knowing what may have been going on behind the scenes, he risks making a point that falls apart.
As Calame also notes, what the Times did also raises the question of what would have happened if the CIA had cried foul. Perhaps the paper could have fudged a few details if failing to do so would have put lives at risk. But I certainly hope (and assume) the editors wouldn't have killed the story.
NO COMMENT NECESSARY
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that in the three and a half years since the Patriot Act was enacted, Section 215 has been used 35 times - but only to obtain driver's license, credit card, and telephone records, not library or bookstore reading lists. Deeply invested though some of the law's critics may be in the notion that the Bush administration lives to pry into the reading habits of law-abiding Americans, there is simply no evidence to back it up. - Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, 4/10/05
Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government's counterterrorism powers. - Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, 6/20/05