White House officials favor two primary tactics when they want to kill a news article, Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser, testified Thursday: They can essentially confirm the report by arguing that it is too important to national security to be published, or they can say that the reporter has it wrong.
Sitting across from a reporter and editor from The New York Times in early 2003, Ms. Rice said, she tried both.
Testifying in the leak trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A.officer, Ms. Rice described how the White House successfully persuaded Times editors not to publish an article about a secret operation to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. James Risen, a Times reporter, ultimately revealed the program in his 2006 book, “State of War,” and said that the C.I.A. had botched the operation. Prosecutors used Ms. Rice’s testimony to bolster their case that the leak to Mr. Risen had harmed national security.
“This was very closely held,” Ms. Rice said. “It was one of the most closely held programs in my tenure as national security adviser.”
Ms. Rice’s account also threw a light on how the government pressures journalists to avoid publishing details about United States security affairs. It is a common practice that is seldom discussed.
Under President George W. Bush, the White House urged reporters to withhold accounts about many of the most contentious aspects in the war on terrorism: the existence of a secret prison in Thailand, the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation and detention program, warrantless wiretapping and government monitoring of financial transactions.
The Obama administration has persuaded reporters to delay publishing the existence of a drone base in Saudi Arabia, the name of a country in which a drone strike against an American citizen was being considered, the fact that a diplomat arrested in Pakistan was a C.I.A. officer and that an American businessman was working for the agency when he disappeared in Iran.
Mr. Sterling is charged with revealing classified information to Mr. Risen. Phone records and emails show that the two men were in contact, and the Justice Department argues that Mr. Sterling was a disgruntled employee who leaked the information to hurt the agency. His lawyers say the government did not investigate anyone else over the leak or review the phone records and emails of Mr. Sterling’s colleagues before focusing on him.
William Harlow, a former C.I.A. spokesman, testified Thursday that he was surprised when Mr. Risen first raised the subject of the Iranian operation in April 2003. Mr. Harlow testified that he did not know at the time that such an operation existed, and told Mr. Risen that only “a publication that didn’t have our best interests” would run such an article.
“I wanted to get his attention,” Mr. Harlow said.
Mr. Harlow summarized multiple phone conversations with Mr. Risen in memos that would form the foundation of the leak investigation.
The Iranian operation involved a former Russian nuclear scientist who, while working for the C.I.A., provided Tehran with schematics that were intentionally flawed. Mr. Risen’s book suggests that the program was mismanaged, that the Iranians quickly discovered the flaws and that they could have easily worked around them. The government disputes that conclusion.
According to notes of the White House meeting, George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director at the time, told Mr. Risen and his editor, Jill Abramson, that the program was not mismanaged and that Iran had not discovered the design flaw. The C.I.A. prepared talking points for Ms. Rice that said that revealing the program would not only jeopardize the former Russian scientist — who had become an American citizen — but “conceivably contribute to the deaths of millions of innocent victims” in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack. Ms. Rice said she urged The Times to destroy any documents or notes about the program.