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?