Times holds nuke secrets story p.10

By: Joe Strupp Front-page story detailing theft of U.S. technology delayed at FBI's request

The New York Times' decision to honor an FBI request and delay a story about China's theft of U.S. nuclear secrets drew mixed reactions from news veterans who disagreed over whether such a practice is journalistically healthy.
Times spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli says the newspaper held the front-page story slated to run March 5 for one day, after federal officials requested the delay. The story reported that China had miniaturized nuclear weapons using information stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "We knew that publishing the story could derail the [theft] investigation, and we didn't want to be an impediment to it," Carparelli says. "They put in a request, and we honored the request for 24 hours."
The delay brought differing viewpoints from news observers who pointed out both the dangers of publishing too quickly and of waiting too long to report.
"The government has its own job to do, and the newspaper has it's job to do," says William Drummond, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley who worked in the White House press office under Jimmy Carter. "You can't let these calls to patriotism guide you."
Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., agreed. "It is always a big deal when the potential is there for the public to perceive you as a patsy for the government," he says. "We do it a lot more often than is made public."
But others, such as Edward Seaton, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, say holding off for one day is not always a disruption to the news process.
"I don't think we need to question that decision," Seaton says. "You are talking about an important national security issue."
FBI officials asked the Times to delay publication because the major suspect in the theft, a Taiwanese-American scientist, was due to be interviewed by federal investigators the same day the story originally would have appeared. The story contained information about the investigation that might have caused the scientist to flee, including the fact that he had failed a lie-detector test, says Carparelli.
After the one-day hold, FBI officials asked Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld for a second delay, but the newspaper did not honor the request after FBI director Louis Freeh failed to contact Lelyveld directly, Carparelli says.
The story appeared on March 6, but did not name the suspected scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was fired two days later and has yet to be charged with any crime.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman declined to comment on the Times story or any request by the FBI to hold it. "It is a pending matter," says Weierman, who referred press inquiries to the U.S. Energy Department, which oversees the Los Alamos Laboratory.
Energy Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Carparelli says the decision was made only after it was determined that the security benefits outweighed the journalistic needs.
"It is only in extreme cases that we hold stories," Carparelli says. "It is our job to print stories unless there is a compelling reason not to."
The Times gained attention in the early 1960s after it held off a story about the Bay of Pigs invasion prior to the failed Cuban mission at the request of the Kennedy Administration.


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