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Monday, June 26, 2006

If Bill Keller were NY Times editor in 1944

The following is a letter Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, has sent to readers who have written to him about The Times's publication of information about the government's plans for an invasion of Europe:

I don't always have time to answer my mail as fully as etiquette demands, but our story about the government's planned invasion of Europe has generated some questions and concerns that I take very seriously. As the editor responsible for the difficult decision to publish that story, I'd like to offer a personal response.

In the months leading up to the failed invasion at Normandy, the Times learned that American-led coaltion conducted a deception operation, code-named Operation Bodyguard. (As we have previously written, this so-called "coalition" is comprised of a mere handful of countries; hardly an effective way to conduct a war.) Operation Bodyguard was designed to persuade the democratically elected German government that areas such as the Balkans were possible invasion points. Then, in the weeks leading up to the invasion, the Roosevelt administration launched Operation Fortitude, a blatant attempt to trick the Germans into believing that the main invasion would really be coming to the Pas de Calais, as well as to lead them to expect an invasion of Norway. Using tax-payer dollars, a completely fictitious Army Group was simulated.

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative columnists or radio hosts who say that drawing attention to the government's war plans is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that's the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by writing to me about it.) Some comes from readers who have considered the story in question and wonder whether publishing such material is wise. And some comes from readers who are grateful for the information and think it is valuable to have a public debate about the lengths to which our government has gone in combatting the supposed threat of world domination by the Nazis.

The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest. Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials. Our default position — our job — is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough.

Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but it's the kind of elementary context that sometimes gets lost when our government claims we are in a global war.

Since December 7, 1941, our government has launched broad and secret war plans without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing the Congress. Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government's actions and over the adequacy of oversight. We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them.

Our decision to publish the story of the Administration's use of deceptive practices followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me. We listened patiently and attentively. We discussed the matter extensively within the paper. We spoke to others — national security experts not serving in the Administration — for their counsel.

The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that its plans were good — that they were legal, that they had been valuable in deceiving the "evil doers,' and that they would save American lives. And, second, that exposing these plans would put their usefulness at risk.

It's not our job to pass judgment on whether these plans are legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the plans have doubts about their legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some State Department officials worry that a temporary plan has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the plans might help defeat the Nazis. A reasonable person, informed about these plans, might well decide to applaud them. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider plans if they don't know about them. And, we might add, the fact that the invasion was an abject failure lends credence to our argument that we cannot blindly trust this administration.

We weighed most heavily the Administration's concern that describing this plan would endanger it, that publication would lead the German coaltion to change tactics. But it has been widely reported — indeed, trumpeted by the War Department — that the U.S. makes every effort to deceive our supposed enemies. The Germans know this, which is why they have already been trying to figure out which of the Administrations plans were mere deceptions. A truly well-planned invasion should be able to withstand the disinfectant of exposure.

I can appreciate that other conscientious people could have gone through the process I've outlined above and come to a different conclusion. But nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues.

Thanks for writing.

Bill Keller

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