Condi Rice Asked Jill Abramson to Stop Jim Risen from Reporting on Merlin

james-risenLast week, the Nation published ExposeFacts’ Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler story on the Government’s War on James Risen. The story described how people complicit in the programs Risen described had tried to convince the New York Times not to publish Risen’s stories.

Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau put together breakthrough reporting on a warrantless domestic-wiretap program. As it sometimes does with stories deemed sensitive for national security, the Times notified the government of its intent to publish. But under strong pressure from White House officials—including some later implicated in the legally suspect program—Times editors delayed the story’s publication for over a year, until December 2005.

[snip]

The belated publication of those stories came just before Risen brought out a book that contained reporting on the wiretap program and several other sinister initiatives under categories like “counterterrorism” and “counterproliferation.” On January 13, 2006, the week after Risen’s book State of War reached the stores, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a news conference that an investigation into the Times wiretap stories was under way and that “it’s too early to make decisions regarding whether or not reporters should go to jail.” Though not apparent at the time, facts later emerged to show that Gonzales was implicated in the illegal wiretapping that Risen exposed. (As White House counsel, Gonzales had authorized continued operation of the program after the Justice Department refused to do so.)

As part of a story on Risen’s case, 60 Minutes provides more details about the government efforts to kill Risen’s stories. Michael Hayden — who as Director of NSA had ordered the illegal wiretap program exposed by Risen continue even though DOJ had not given it legal sanction — claimed he was conflicted over whether Risen should have to testify in Jeffrey Sterling’s trial. (Note, Hayden has almost certainly served as a confidential source for other journalists.) “I don’t see the necessity to pursue Jim,” Hayden said.

Even more interesting, Jill Abramson described her meeting with Condoleezza Rice regarding Risen’s Merlin story for which Jeffrey Sterling is being prosecuted. (Josh Gerstein pointed out this segment in this post.)

Her bottom line, after she went through the litany of reasons that the story shouldn’t be published was to ask me to make sure that Jim ceased all reporting on this story, which was really an extraordinary request.

Abramson went on to express regret that she didn’t publish the story anyway. It wasn’t the press’ finest hour, Abramson conceded.

As Abramson noted, Rice did make an extraordinary request. She was asking not just that the Times not pursue the story, but also that it stop its reporter from digging further.

Was Rice worried that Risen’s reporting might — as it appears to have done — convince him even more of the import of the story? Was she worried he might find additional sources on it (remember that Sterling had recently gone to the Senate Intelligence Committee with concerns about the program)?

One way or another, Rice wanted to do more than just kill the story. She wanted to kill Risen’s reporting on it.

That, as it turns out, was something Abramson didn’t have the power to deliver.

About Marcy Wheeler

Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler writes the "Right to Know" column for ExposeFacts. She is best known for providing in-depth analysis of legal documents related to "war on terrorism" programs and civil liberties. Wheeler blogs at emptywheel.net and publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon and the Progressive. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. Wheeler won the 2009 Hillman Award for blog journalism.