Page last updated at 19:33 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

New York Times chief explains Baradar news delay

Front page of New York Times newspaper
The paper delayed reporting the capture after a White House request

The New York Times delayed reporting news of the capture of top Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar , after a request by White House officials.

Speaking on The Takeaway , a BBC co-production, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, explains why the decision was made to delay publication of the exclusive.


BILL KELLER: Good morning Celeste.

HEADLEE: So explain the delay, the White House called you and asked you not to print the story?

KELLER: Well, actually, we called them, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins had the story pretty well nailed down last Thursday and they took it to the White House for comment, of course, as we routinely do, and the folks at the White House said, well hold on for a second we need to talk to you about this, and several of the people from our Washington bureau went over to the White House and sat down with people from the National Security Council and the press office and they said that they were pretty sure that Mullah Baladar's colleagues in the Taliban were not yet aware that he was in custody. I don't know the details of it, but they thought it had been a clean snatch and they were afraid once the word got out, other Taliban officials would go deeper underground or take measures to cover their tracks, so they asked us to hold off for a while.

HEADLEE: I'm going to ask you in a moment what went into your decision to do as they asked, but let me get the timeline of events down clearly. Your reporters from independent sources learned about this out of Pakistan.

KELLER: Yes Pakistan and Afghanistan.

HEADLEE: Then you went to the White House to get comment on it and that's when they told you we want you to hold the story?

KELLER: That's correct.

HEADLEE: Until today or until last night?

KELLER: Until last night, right.

CH: So why did you decide to do this? You don't always acquiesce to these kinds of requests.

KELLER: No, we get asked to withhold information, not often but from time to time. Sometimes it's a no-brainer, you know we have reporters embedded in military operations - obviously they don't file information that would put troops at risk. We've had other stories that were much more controversial where we decided that we would publish. This one was not, honestly, a very hard call. Obviously we were eager to break the story, it represented a lot of resourceful reporting by Mark and Dexter, but there was no obvious public interest reason to rush the story into print and you know we are responsible people; we didn't want to compromise what sounded like a possible intelligence coup.

HEADLEE: And certainly, the story retains just as much power more than a week later as it would have had you broken it right at the time, is that kind of your thought process?

KELLER: Yeah, I think that's kind of the thought process. What actually happened, was yesterday our stringers in Pakistan and Afghanistan started calling our bureaus there and saying, we're hearing reports that Mullah Baladar is in Pakistani custody, we took that to the White House and they said, yeah we understand it's not holdable anymore.

HEADLEE: Right, so you published it. Now you visited the White House in 2006 while President Bush was in office and you were getting ready to publish a story about domestic wire tapping and very famously you were told if you published that story you'd have blood on your hands. Is that the kind of dire warning you got from the Obama White House?

KELLER: No, first of all this didn't even get to my level, they dealt with Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, I mean obviously if they felt they needed to call me, I'm always willing to take a call, but it didn't even rise to that level. Back in 2006 the conversations were professional and civil, but in the end when we didn't agree to hold the story as they wanted us to, it was a kind of firestorm of criticism from the White House aimed at the Times. So far anyway we haven't had that acrimony with this administration, nor as far as I know have other news organisations.

HEADLEE: What's the kind of bar that you have to come up to in order to decide that a story is worth holding at someone else's request? Do you have to check in to make sure the White House isn't making that request for their own spoken selfish reasons?

KELLER: It's complicated. On the one hand I don't have subpoena power, I don't have spies in the National Security Agency, so knowing whether publishing a story would actually put national security at risk is a harder thing for me to figure out than it would be for somebody who's actually in the government. But we do our best job at doing that and we take these requests quite seriously. I think the first one that I ever dealt with was when I was foreign editor in the Clinton administration, and we learned that there was a large unsecured stash of highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. We held the story until the material was secured. That was not that hard a call. There are others where to this day we can't talk about things we've held out because they would, for example endanger agents who are working in foreign countries.

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