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McClatchy Editor Defends Publishing Al Qaeda Detail CNN, NY Times Held Back

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On Sunday, McClatchy reported that the decision to close U.S. embassies and issue a travel warning last week was prompted by an intercepted communication between Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the Yemen-based head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The McClatchy report helped clarify why the U.S. government was taking such extreme caution overseas and included information about the much-discussed terror threat that at least two news organizations, CNN and the New York Times, held back at the government's request.

CNN's Barbara Starr acknowledged on air that the network withheld the names attached to the intercept, while the New York Times -- which noted holding back information in a Friday night report -- explained the decision in an article Monday.

In an article posted on the Web on Friday and published on Saturday, The New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders whose conversations were intercepted after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations. The names were disclosed Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers, and after the government became aware of the article on Monday, it dropped its objections to The Times's publishing the same information.

The Washington bureau at McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, is known to break from the pack and skeptically questioned the Bush administration's rationale for war in Iraq when many other media outlets bolstered the government's flimsy case. McClatchy has continued its aggressive coverage of national security under the Obama administration, including looking critically at officials' public statements on drone strikes against whats's detailed in classified documents.

McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher explained in email to The Huffington Post why they went ahead with the story:

Our story was based on reporting in Yemen and we did not contact the administration to ask permission to use the information. In fact, our reporter tells me that the intercept was pretty much common knowledge in Yemen.

On your larger question about the administration's request, I'm not surprised. It is not unusual for CNN or the NYT to agree not to publish something because the White House asked them. And frankly, our Democracy isn't well served when journalists agree to censor their work.

As I've told our readers in the past: McClatchy journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy.

Mark Seibel, McClatchy's chief of correspondents, told journalist Dan Froomkin that they got the information out of Yemen and "so no, no one asked us not to run it."

"And as you know, we wouldn't be disposed to honor such a request anyway," Seibel added.

The Huffington Post has reported on several instances over the past year where major news organizations withheld information at the government's request, including details about the Benghazi attack, U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, and identities of CIA officers holding high-level positions in the agency. In all three cases, the details were either publicly known, having been reported by foreign news outlets, or were widely known in Washington media and government circles.

There have been a flurry of reports in recent days featuring anonymous government officials talking up the latest terror threat. These stories, which emphasize the U.S.'s ability to track high-ranking members of Al Qaeda, seem to contradict the anonymous claims made by government officials in June that Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures hurt national security by tipping off terrorists about surveillance of communications.

This post originally stated that McClatchy published on Monday. It was Sunday. Also, the post was updated to include Mark Seibel's comments