Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Judy Code

By Douglas McCollam

In July of 2001, Steve Engelberg, then an editor at The New York Times, looked up to see Judy Miller standing at his desk. As Engelberg recalls, Miller had just learned from a source about an intercepted communication between two Al Qaeda members who were discussing how disappointed they were that the United States had never attempted to retaliate for the bombing of the USS Cole. Not to worry, one of them said, soon they were going to do something so big that the U.S. would have to retaliate.

Miller was naturally excited about the scoop and wanted the Times to go with the story. Engelberg, himself a veteran intelligence reporter, wasn’t so sure. There had been a lot of chatter about potential attacks; how did they know this was anything other than big talk? Who were these guys? What country were they in? How had we gotten the intercept? Miller didn’t have any answers and Engelberg didn’t think they could publish without more context. Miller agreed to try and find out more, but in the end the story never ran.

Today, more than four years after 9/11, Engelberg, now managing editor of The Oregonian in Portland, still thinks about that story. “More than once I’ve wondered what would have happened if we’d run the piece?” he says. “A case can be made that it would have been alarmist and I just couldn’t justify it, but you can’t help but think maybe I made the wrong call.”
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