Media Pioneer

Jill Abramson Talks Obama Secrecy and Her New York Times Firing

Two months after her abrupt exit from the Gray Lady, the former executive editor delivered a speech about how different Obama is from Bush—and why she was dismissed from her post.

Kena Betancur/Reuters

Aside from her unceremonious firing, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is perhaps best known for her assertion that the Obama administration is the most secretive of any she has covered, and in 22 years in Washington, that covers a lot of White Houses. She got plenty of grief from President Obama’s top aides in the aftermath, and while other journalists made the same observation, Abramson’s words carried weight, coming as they did from the prestigious newspaper’s first female top editor.

Two months after leaving the Times, in case anyone is wondering, she isn’t backing down from that assertion, but backing it up with concrete examples and inside anecdotes. “I have heard Obama officials say more than once, ‘You will have blood on your hands if you publish this story,’” she said in a speech Wednesday at the Chautauqua Institution describing her perspective as a key player in the midst of some of the biggest stories of our time pitting press freedom against national security.

It’s a question of balancing competing interests, the government’s claims versus the public’s right to know. “When someone says, ‘You’ll have blood on your hands,’ you pause and take it very seriously,” she said, explaining how her views evolved from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when she and other key media figures were on a conference call with Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and at his request agreed with apparently no dissent not to publish anything about the sources or methods the intelligence community was using in the aftermath of the attacks. “It was an easy commitment to make,” she said. “And for a few years, we didn’t publish anything that would break that agreement.”

But as the war soured and stories emerged about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the press became more aggressive, and in 2005, the Times published a blockbuster story about warrantless wiretapping, which is illegal. The Times had held the story for a year, heeding the administration, which called the program “the crown jewel in our country’s arsenal.” President Bush personally asked that the story not be published, “which is rare,” Abramson said. “It’s usually not the president.”

For all that, Abramson notes that Bush did not launch a criminal investigation to find the source of the Times story. “Obama is very different,” she said, pointing out that he has ordered eight criminal investigations into whistleblowers, twice the number of all previous presidents combined, and a year ago secretly subpoenaed the phone and email records of reporters at Fox News and the Associated Press.

The New York Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes during Abramson’s tenure as editor, but NSA contractor Edward Snowden did not choose the Times to launch his treasure trove of intelligence secrets. “It was a bad day for me,” Abramson recalled. “I had been beaten on the biggest story of this time.”

Several weeks into the almost daily revelations, Abramson got a call from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger asking if the Times would now collaborate with the Guardian, which was publishing the leaks. British laws look far less kindly on the press, and he feared the British government would enjoin the newspaper from publishing any more stories. Several days later, the British equivalent of the NSA stood watch as Guardian editors smashed computer hard drives with the Snowden documents rather than turn them over.

Over dinner recently in New York with Rusbridger, Abramson recounted, he showed her a little piece of one of the smashed computer drives. “It’s a status symbol,” she enthused, imagining that those pieces on eBay would fetch a good price.

For journalists, Snowden’s leak is the gift that keeps on giving. “We haven’t nearly reached the bottom on these searches. Snowden leaked so much,” she said. At the Times, the Snowden documents are kept in an extremely secure location away from the newsroom, she said. Few journalists have access to the information, and those who do work in a windowless cubbyhole on a top floor. To make the environment more hospitable, Abramson made sure they had plenty of snacks. The result, she said, was that “the Snowden team has gained an epic amount of weight.”

Abramson said her speech could be titled “I Hate Censorship,” but she told stories of media restraint, as well. One involved the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who called her on her cellphone while she was on a crowded commuter train. “Jill Abramson, you will have blood on your hands,” he said. He argued that revealing the details of an intercept would imperil the administration’s efforts to derail a terrorist plot. “I decided this request was reasonable,” she said. One day later, a rival news organization, McClatchy, published the information. “I don’t regret that decision,” she said. “McClatchy was the winner and got the scoop, and I will live with that.”

For those who think the media don’t take into account legitimate arguments made by the government, Abramson said that “even [Glenn] Greenwald,” with his reputation for fearlessness, withheld the name of a country in an article because the government asked him to, fearing violence if the country was identified. Within 24 hours, WikiLeaks issued a challenge: If he didn’t reveal the name, it would—and it did. “It was Afghanistan,” said Abramson. “Secrets don’t stay secrets very long, even when journalists decide to censor themselves.”

So what would she ask Snowden, if she could pose him just one question? “What he thinks about the government of Russia—and whether it’s worth it to remain there when Snowden’s own reputation is a little bit stained for seeking the protection of that regime.” She dodged a question about how history would regard Snowden, saying she thinks it was “an act of conscience to disclose that treasure trove of information.” She noted that the Times quoted the new head of NSA saying, “the sky isn’t falling,” but we don’t know what else is coming out.

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Asked why she was fired, she quoted what has been publicly said by the Times publisher: “I was fired because of my quote-unquote management skills—and to be honest with you, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means.” So is everybody else, ensuring Abramson a reservoir of goodwill as she heads to Harvard, her alma mater, in the fall to teach narrative nonfiction writing.

Correction: the original version of this article misindentified the name of the country that Wikileaks outed. It is Afghanistan, not Pakistan.