Short Take: Traitorous Times

While its significance has faded over the course of the hours following all hell breaking loose, the news cycle was obsessed for a brief and glorious few hours on the president revealing classified information to the Russians in the Oval Office after the Washington Post revealed the botch.

The Post, however, did not share the details of the intelligence because officials warned this could help Russia identify the ally involved. When The Times confirmed the story soon after, it too left out the name of the country, saying only that it was “Middle Eastern.”

The point, pundits argued, wasn’t that Trump gave up the name, home address and social security number of the secret agent, but enough so that the Russians, or ISIS, could “reverse engineer” from what was said so that it could ascertain “sources or methods” from whence the intelligence came.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

Heavy stuff, and if true, a disastrous mistake. But even if not, more was revealed, and in a fashion that shouldn’t have happened. Oopies. As the president has previously noted, who knew it was so hard to be president?

But then, the New York Times went a step beyond. While WaPo and others didn’t reveal the specific name of the source country, at least keeping the revelation to a minimum, the Times couldn’t restrain itself.

The Times did name the ally: Israel.

So if Trump’s disclosure was so disastrous to American intelligence interests, how did the Times not make it worse?

We asked Joe Kahn, the managing editor, to help clarify The Times’s thinking.

It’s a fair question. We did in fact hold off naming Israel as the source of the intelligence the first day. The second day several reporters pressed for answers as to why we should hold off. The answers we were given by several senior officials were boilerplate and off the record. We asked for greater detail about the ways this information could cause problems and no detail was forthcoming.

This is the most insanely circular rationalization possible. They received no “greater detail” because the government sought to contain the disclosure, which is why this was a story at all. And because the government failed to disclose what it shouldn’t disclose because that’s what made this a story, the Times, in its infinite wisdom, decided to do so on its own.

But in his defense, Kahn continues:

While we named Israel as the source, we did not discuss specifics of how the intelligence was gathered. So there were unconvincing reasons for not publishing.

Except without naming Israel as the source, it was a huge story that Trump told the Russians, also without discussing specifics of how the intelligence was gathered. So when he did it, it was the worst thing ever, but when the Times does it, it’s totally fine? But there’s more!

There were also convincing reasons in favor of publishing. For one, Israel is particularly wary of Russia, which has close relationships with Iran and Syria, avowed enemies of Israel. Second, Trump is on his way to Israel for his first major overseas trip. So for reasons involving diplomacy and relations with a crucial ally, we considered the fact that Israel was the source to be newsworthy and in the public interest.

So the President of the United States can’t make determinations of what to reveal in the course of diplomacy, but some guy who cashes a New York Times paycheck feels entitled to decide what classified information is in America’s diplomatic interests to reveal?

And what’s the Public Editor, Liz Spayd’s, take on this excuse?

The public editor’s take: I agree. It’s a good question and a helpful response. It’s hard to withhold relevant information if the government isn’t providing a compelling reason to do so.

Who knew it would be so hard to be a New York Times editor and not reveal classified information after you’ve just condemned the president for doing less?


18 thoughts on “Short Take: Traitorous Times

  1. wilbur

    This must have been news fit to print. Otherwise they wouldn’t have printed it.

    As our blog host would say “See how that works?”

  2. delurking

    If, from the information provided to the Russians, the Russians could deduce that the information came from Israel, then the New York Times publishing that the information came from Israel does not materially change the situation with respect to the US and Russia.

    1. Dan

      But it may well change the situation with respect to third parties. The U.S. and Russia aren’t the only ones involved.

    1. SHG Post author

      Forget double standard, it’s such a pathetic attempt at rationalization that it’s insulting. Try harder, Times. Show a little effort.

  3. DaveL

    So who was the Nimrod at the White House who, so shocked that the President would be so gauche as to leak enough ancillary information to Russian diplomats to allow them to infer the source, decided to explicitly name that source to the press?

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s a second problem. Leaking classified info to the media is not a good way to run a secure administration. Much as we may like to learn stuff, somebody is sucking on the govt teat while playing the other side as a leaker, all the while remaining anon.

      It’s not like the WaPo or NYT want to comment about that inappropriate conduct, though.

      1. Allen

        Which is the real story. The Times and the Post aren’t even trying to fake it anymore with the good old, “the people’s right to know.” Our agenda is the people’s agenda, just ask all the right people.

        I think it will be great to live in a low trust environment. I’m putting Punji stick traps on my lawn.

      2. B. McLeod

        It certainly has become clear that a number of highly disloyal people are remaining close to Trump so they can call the media up and read internal memos that will cause problems for him. If this kind of rampant treachery is the new model for executive government in this country, we are done. No president will be able to maintain a viable administration with half the staff perpetually stabbing him in the back.

        1. SHG Post author

          Loyalty is no longer valued in our society. Not in the White House. Not in employment. Nowhere.

  4. Christopher Best

    Big change from how it went in Ike’s autobiography, where he said he purposely told reporters in the Sicily theater all the details of the upcoming invasion, and the seriousness of being entrusted with such important information not only prevented them from revealing what they were told, but also supposedly caused them to cease speculation and snooping until after the invasion.

    Maybe our news media *was* a little too much of a team player during the dark days of WWII… But not being a ‘team player’ doesn’t mean you have to go all the way to full blown opposition…

  5. Krish

    I’m glad someone’s calling out the New York Times for breaking their oath of office.

    1. RemnantPsyche

      Right. Who cares about journalistic ethics–to say nothing of internally consistent arguments–when there’s a partisan point to be earned?

      Stay woke!

  6. Mr. Median

    The Fourth Estate, benign holder of veto power over democratic elections …

    “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.

    That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the world ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” George Orwell, 1984

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