This morning’s New York Times is a death warrant for a very troubled, and possibly a very brave, man — a spectacular example of what can go wrong when press freedoms and terrible editorial judgment combine.
The Times reported that Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist who returned to his home country this week, had been a Central Intelligence Agency informant years before he made the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia during which he either defected or was abducted by American operatives, depending upon which account one chooses to believe.
After yesterday’s tearful reunion in Tehran with his family, including the 7-year-old son whom he had not seen in 14 months, Amiri faces debriefing by Iranian secret police. They will want to know what information he provided to the Americans and what he might know about other U.S. agents in the Islamic Republic. Once they are satisfied that Amiri has nothing left to tell them, they will decide what to do with him.
The Times’ report, citing anonymous American sources, acknowledges that the report of his prior work for the CIA is likely to get him killed.
“His safety depends on him sticking to that fairy tale about pressure and torture,” the newspaper quotes one official. “His challenge is to try to convince the Iranian security forces that he never cooperated with the United States.”
If the Times’ reporters and editors believe their own sources, then they knew full well that publishing today’s story is likely to ensure Amiri’s early death. Yet they published anyway.
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. government set up a $5 million fund for Amiri’s benefit, indicating that he had indeed provided information that Washington found valuable. Amiri apparently has forfeited the money because U.S. sanctions prevent him from taking it with him to Iran. While not helpful to Amiri, the Post story did not necessarily contradict his claim that he was kidnapped, drugged and tortured to provide data on Iran’s nuclear program, and that the Americans pressured him to accept as much as $50 million in return for betraying his country.
It does not matter whether anyone believes that cockamamie account, just as it does not matter whether anyone believes the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, actually won last year’s election. The Tehran regime only cares about the truth to the extent that the truth helps it maintain power. Thus the Iranians care very much about finding and eliminating American agents, in as grisly and public a manner as they can, to deepen the fear through which they rule their country.
Otherwise, this spy tale is being fought for propaganda value. Recovering Amiri gave the Iranian regime an opportunity to push its claim that the United States is the malevolent force in the Middle East. But that only worked as long as Amiri’s abduction story provided a fig leaf that Amiri and his supporters could hide behind.
Several high-ranking government officials turned out to give Amiri a hero’s welcome when he returned. Now that America’s leading newspaper, citing officials in our own government, has outed Amiri as a longtime mole, nobody in power in Iran will be able to argue for clemency.
The paper’s decision-making strikes me as bizarre in several respects. First, of course, is the question of why reporters David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, along with their editors, chose to publish this information at all. They had every legal right to publish, and there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of their account, but a man’s life hung in the balance. Is that reason enough to kill the story? I would say that in most cases the answer should be yes, unless publishing the story might plausibly save other lives.
Even more is at stake in this case. If The Times’ story is true, Amiri cooperated in exposing Iran’s nuclear program while he was still in the country, at great risk to himself and his family. The reckless leak of this information sends a chilling message to every foreigner who helps our government gather information in dangerous capitals. This includes obvious places like Iran and North Korea as well as so-called friendly countries like Pakistan.
If the Obama administration has any sense at all, it will immediately recognize how damaging this leak is, and it will take steps to uncover the leakers. If not, critics inside and outside our government will soon demand an investigation anyway. We might see the reporters subpoenaed to identify their sources, and they might face jail if they refuse, as any ethical journalist probably would.
Imagine: Reporters going to prison to protect the anonymity of sources who provided the information that got an innocent man murdered. Do you think that will do much for the public’s perception of the press?
If the Amiri story was important enough to publish, you would think it was important enough for the front page. But The Times buried the story on page A8 of its metro New York edition. Meanwhile, there was ample space on the cover for a throwaway story about Gulf oysters and a hatchet job on a Republican candidate for governor of Connecticut. Maybe the editors thought the Iranian regime does not know how to Google Amiri’s name, and therefore would not notice the story if it was buried.
This is not the first time The New York Times has published damaging information about American intelligence sources and methods. Four years ago, the paper printed details of how anti-terrorism investigators analyzed bank data they obtained legally from a Belgian clearinghouse. The paper’s “public editor” at the time, Byron Calame, concluded that the decision to publish was a mistake, although Executive Editor Bill Keller — still in that post today — disagreed.
Obviously, a lot of good journalism, and occasionally great journalism, goes into The New York Times. My daughter, who had nothing to do either with the Amiri story or with this commentary, is having an excellent experience as an intern there this summer. But some at The Times, quite likely including Keller, need to rethink how they balance the public’s right to know (and a journalist’s right to convey) information with the editor’s responsibility to decide what information is worth conveying, and when.
Did I need to know Amiri’s history as an American informant, especially at risk of his life? Of course not. Since he is of interest mostly because of the odd circumstances in which he returned to Iran, I could see everything I needed to know in the photos of him holding that little boy who soon may lose his father again, this time permanently.
If that happens, I hope Shahram Amiri’s son will have an opportunity someday to ask those Times reporters why they got his father killed.