FOR THE FIRST three weeks of March, the managing editor of The New York Times had on his desk a news story he did not think fit to print. The story was not libelous or sloppily written, and was not trivial. By any standard, it was well worth running in The Times. But the story concerned the Central Intelligence Agency, and when CIA director William Colby got wind of it, he implored the paper to supress the news for a while. The managing editor agreed.
He was not alone in his deference to CIA wishes. Colby or his deputies contacted at least 10 other news organizations they knew to be working on the story, and convinced each to "embargo" the news.
The story Colby wanted to contain was a strange tale of CIA derring-do: the attempted raising of a sunken Soviet submarine from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. But when Jack Anderson broke the news on a radio show last week and forced his cautions colleagues into print with their versions, the strangest tale was not the underwater espionage ballet, but the story of how the CIA convinced 11 respected news organizations to withhold, rather than distribute, the news.
To their credit, papers that held the sub story at least ran articles last week attempting to explain why their editors and publishers bought the CIA line. Stephen Isaacs of The Washington Post quoted his boss, publisher Katharine Graham, as saying Colby's argument was "rational."
"He laid out the facts as he saw them, and we evaluated the facts as we saw them," Graham said. In his talk with executives at the Post and other organizations, Colby reportedly stressed that the sub affair was not yet over, that the CIA would try again this summer to raise the ship (the CIA brought only part of it to the surface last summer). By reporting the story, Colby said, news organizations would inform the Soviet Union about the salvage operation, and thus prevent its success.
That was apparently the clincher, because Colby received cooperation from the news executives he contacted, and later, executives would cite the continuing nature of the sub salvage as reason for holding their stories. As Times managing editor A. M. Rosenthal told one of his reporters, who used his boss's quote in a story headlined "C.I.A. Tried to Get Press/To Hold Up Salvage Story." The Times "believed that in this case the advantage of immediate public disclosure did not outweigh the considerations of disclosing an important ongoing operation."
Rosenthal's explanation--which was echoed, more or less, by his counterparts on other papers--torpedoes a basic journalistic assumption: that the public should know about important government operations as soon as possible so that their protests, if any, will not be too late. In this case, the CIA reportedly spent over $350 million on an "Important" operation--money that no amount of public protest now can retrieve.
Rosenthal's explanation violated another credo of responsible journalists: that a newspaper should disclose the news it has and let others worry about the consequences. It is a journalistic ethic that might seem callous and irresponsible at first, but it makes great sense, because an editor can never know what the effects of disclosure will be. So why should he trap a good story in the morass of worthless hypotheses? The Times should know this more than other papers, because it was once badly burned by sitting with great civic pompousity on a piece of hot news. In 1961, The Times learned of the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion--"an important ongoing operation," as Rosenthal would say--but the publisher, at the urging of James Reston, ordered the story about it toned down and placed in a less-prominent spot on the front page. Reston felt that the invasion would suffer if The Times reported that it was about to occur; it might even be cancelled. That would not be in the best interest of the United States. But President Kennedy would later say that maybe The Times should have published the story and prevented the debacle.
The point, of course, is that The Times had no more business printing the story in an attempt to stop the invasion than it had sitting on the story in an attempt to help the invasion succeed. The Times should simply have printed the news it had. That is the purpose of a newspaper.
THERE MIGHT BE times when a paper should withhold news, but only if the consequences of disclosure are certain and disastrous. (The classic example is that a newspaper should not publish in advance the details of troop movement during wartime. Fair enough.) But there was nothing certain or disastrous about the consequences the CIA claimed would follow publication of the sub salvage story.
Apparently, the news organizations that agreed to delay the story--which included Time, Newsweek, CBS and NBC--took Colby's word that the operation was important. There is no evidence that any organization tried carefully to establish, on its own, exactly why the CIA needed to recover the codes and warheads from a 17-year-old sub that sank seven years ago. Most of them apparently took the Colby briefings on the importance of the whole affair at face value. Jack Anderson found some experienced naval sources who scoffed at the intelligence value of the sub, which is one reason he felt free to break the news.
Anderson's colleagues may have seriously doubted Colby's truthfulness, of course, but they took his word about the importance of the salvage operation. A schizophrenic attitude? Yes--and best expressed on the morning of publication by Benjamin Bradlee '43, executive editor of The Post: "I do not today know whether it's true or false that the national interest was harmed with the publication this morning. The only place where you could get that information is the CIA and I'm not sure I'd believe them anyway."
Why did the press "play ball, as government officials say, with Colby and the CIA? It may be, as Jack Anderson wrote in a column after he broke the story, that the press is worried about appearing to be unpatriotic--especially after being criticized about running a president out of office.
"The old blather about 'responsibility' to keep secrets instead of exploding abuses has begun to creep back into the press parlance," he wrote, citing "the old pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam ideals of partnership with government...of a camaraderie of secrets shared by this peerage but kept from the public."
With that in mind, it's worth noting that the sub story isn't the only CIA news The Times has kept from the public recently. Alexander Cockburn, The Village Voice's excellent press critic, reports that President Ford told The Times's editors about two weeks ago that the CIA might have planned and even carried out assasinations of foreign leaders. The editors did not print a story about the Ford disclosure. Instead, the information leaked from Times man to Times man, and finally, to Daniel Shorr of CBS. He broadcast the story, and the next morning. The Times weighed in with its version. The coast, after all, was now clear.
This pack-journalism nonsense--watching what the other guy does before deciding whether to print news you have--permeated the sub salvage story as well. When Colby visited one news organization, he would always brag about the others that he had "locked up"--in other words, that he had convinced not to publish the story. As a result, newspapers and networks watched each other with special care, anxious for a sign that the story was about to break. There was no concern for getting the news out; the concern was with not getting scooped by the opposition. When Anderson broke the story, The Times decided the embargo was off. Later that night, as The Times readied its coverage, The Los Angeles Time--which did not think the Anderson disclosure was enough to purify the story--learned that The New York Times planned to publish it. Well, that was a different matter.
For some reason, editors do not seem to think they were had on this one. Time magazine's press section, for example, congratulated the magazine and those other organizations that had enough sobriety to hold the story.
Seymour Hersh, The New York Times reporter who first learned of the salvage operation, disagrees. "I wish they [The Times] had published this story without the cover of Jack Anderson taking all the heat," he said Wednesday.
But Hersh didn't want to discuss the question much further. He works for The Times, after all, where people print what they see fit to print and say what they see fit to say, and he didn't want to talk about the controversy with outsiders. He said that as long as he worked for The Times, he should keep it "in the family."