Did the Obama administration force editing changes to Charlie Savage's page-one lead piece today on the appeals court ruling on CIA torture?
It sure looks that way, from some quiet but substantial editing that took place after Savage's story first went online late yesterday.
The story reported on a federal Appeals Court ruling in favor of the Obama Administration's efforts to prevent lawsuits alleging torture against the C.I.A., on the grounds that they would reveal government secrets.
In the story that went up on the NYT website yesterday -- and which remains posted on the Charlotte Observer website -- Savage noted that the administration's counterterrorism policies "have in some ways departed from the expectations of change" promised by Obama during the campaign.
Savage then summarized the administration's policies like this:
Among other policies, the Obama team has also placed a U.S. citizen on a targeted-killings list without a trial, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas-corpus suits challenging their indefinite imprisonment, and continued the CIA rendition program - though the administration says it now takes greater safeguards to prevent detainees from being mistreated.
But at some point after the story first went online and before it went into print, Savage substantially changed the paragraph -- altering words and meanings, adding and removing phrases, and essentially softening the rhetoric of the passage. The version now online, and in the print edition, reads this way:
Among other policies, the Obama national security team has also authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.
We're not experts in counterterrorism policy, but even the most casual reader can see that the final phrasing isn't nearly as inflammatory as the first version. The story now says the "Obama national security team authorized the C.I.A." to kill a U.S. citizen, instead of saying that "the Obama team" put the citizen on a "targeted-killings list" and the fact that the citizen was ordered killed "without a trial"; it now identifies the citizen as being "suspected of terrorist ties"; it changes a reference to "indefinite imprisonment" of detainees to "imprisonment without trial," and the "rendition program" has been redefined as the "so-called extraordinary rendition program."
The new version also notes specifically that the Obama administration "has forbidden torture" -- a point not made in the earlier version -- and says it "seeks assurances" (as opposed to "take greater safeguards") about the treatment of detainees.
Simply put, the final version of the story appears to go to far greater lengths to reflect the Obama administration's position on the policies cited. Standing side by side, it's hard not to suspect that administration officials may have asked for, and gotten, a softening of Savage's tone after reading his initial version.
We recognize that at times, reporters and editors can and will change stories to improve their accuracy after they've been posted. That's reasonable in small matters, and may be what happened here.
But when changes become this substantial, we don't think the NYT can legitimately leave them unacknowledged. If the original statements were in error, shouldn't they have been identified as corrections to the post, as the NYT often does when mistakes get pointed out after posting a story?
We've emailed Savage for his comment on the changes, and will update when we've heard from him.
UPDATE: Commenters and tweeters seem to think we've declared the Obama administration guilty of meddling in NYT stories, without any facts or evidence. We haven't, and we're not. Our post concerns the fact that Savage's story changed substantially, without any notification to readers -- and in a way that served the Obama administration's interests. It's the NYT's responsibility to explain the changes to its story, not ours. In the absence of an explanation, we're offering what seems to us a reasonable guess.