The CIA’s Copy Desk and The N.Y. Times

Perhaps America’s newspaper of record should change its motto to: “All the News the CIA Deems Fit to Print.” In the fall of 2000, New York Times national security reporter, James Risen, took a four-month leave of absence to co-author The Main Enemy, a book chronicling the 1980s war between the KGB and the CIA. Risen returned to the Times in January 2001, and continued covering the CIA while working on the book. In addition, reports Allan Wolper in Editor & Publisher, nearly half of the book will be vetted by the agency’s Publications Review Board prior to its publication in May.

Despite criticism from the likes of Wolper, neither Risen nor the Times view this project as a conflict of interest. “[We] won’t have any problems,” assured Risen. Times columnist Bill Keller concedes, “We’ve told [Risen] that he has to work at this so that he is not in any way beholden to the CIA.” Main Enemy co-author and retired chief of the agency’s Soviet division, Milton A. Bearden, insists that he’s the only writer who’s scrutinized. “I submit all my writings to the CIA. My op-ed pieces that run in newspapers. The CIA goes over everything I write. Risen doesn’t have to [have his work reviewed]. End of story.”

Wolper is unconvinced, wondering how the Times–a publication so sensitive to potential conflicts-of-interest that it forbade sports writer Mike Wise from collaborating on a book with L.A. Laker Shaquille O’Neal–could have permitted Risen to return to work. Wolper also questions Risen’s objectivity about the impending war with Iraq when his source so clearly controls his content.
Erin Ferdinand

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