Did the Times Bury an Inconvenient Torture Memo Story?

Did the Times bury reporter Peter Baker's story on a memo written by Obama's own national intelligence director, suggesting that harsh interrogation methods had proved effective in understanding Al Qaeda? Washington Examiner journalist Byron York has his suspicions.

From Baker's 850-word online story, "Banned Techniques Yielded 'High Value Information,' Memo Says, " which has rocketed across the Drudge Report and the conservative web since it was posted at nytimes.com Tuesday:

President Obama's national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Baker caught an intriguing bit of redaction by the Obama administration:

Admiral Blair's assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past," he wrote, "but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given."

But Examiner journalist Byron York noticed that, although the story rocketed across the internet since being posted yesterday, it didn't even make the print edition of Wednesday's Times. Most of the information unearthed by Baker was there, but relegated to paragraphs 9-13 of a larger story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, which was itself relegated to page 17 of the New York Late Edition. The money quote about the "high-value information" derived from the interrogations is preserved in Stolberg, but the headline doesn't provide any hint of any information about the Blair memo: "Obama Won't Bar Inquiry, or Penalty, on Interrogations."

Times editors insisted to York there was no bias afoot:

I asked Richard Stevenson, who is the Times' deputy Washington bureau chief, what was going on. He told me Baker got the Blair information late in the day Tuesday, and there just wasn't room for it in the paper."We already had three stories on this subject," Stevenson explained, "and it was late, there was no more space to do this separately...We just didn't have the space to put it in the print newspaper."


One reason Baker's story has attracted so much attention is that it provided some balance to a number of interrogation stories we have seen in the Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. There is a legitimate argument to be made by the defenders of the Bush administration's interrogation program, and to see it echoed by Barack Obama's national intelligence director is striking. My guess is that, even given the attention Baker's story has gotten on the Web, it would have had even more impact were it the paper, as well.

Stevenson denied that there was any bias in the Times' decision not to run the story in the paper edition."If your implication was there was some sort of ideological or value judgment made about the subject matter, that's preposterous," he told me. "It was 8:30 at night, we had a lot of stories going, a limited amount of space, and the ability to get that news into a different story."

But the Times' reaction - dissolving the story into another one without even leaving a byline (Baker got a credit at the bottom) - certainly gives no incentive to any ambitious reporter to go against the paper's predominant liberal instincts.

Oh well. At least leaving out Baker's memo story left room on the same page for another vital story by the same reporter: "Obama Signs Volunteer Bill With Nod to Kennedy Era," which ate up 425 words, plus photo.