10/03/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2013

New York Times Public Editor Questions Al Qaeda Leak Story With ‘Unacceptable' Headline

NEW YORK -– New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called out the paper on Thursday for publishing an “unacceptable” headline on a “questionable" front-page story Monday suggesting that an al Qaeda leak hurt national security.

Patrick LaForge, who oversees the Times copy desk, agreed with Sullivan that the headline was unacceptable.

But it’s not only the headline –- “Qaeda Plot Leak Has Undermined U.S. Intelligence” -– that has drawn scrutiny in recent days. Several journalists and a prominent Yemen expert have questioned the article's premise, in which anonymous U.S. officials claim the leak of an intercept between al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Yemen-based al Qaeda head Nasir al-Wuhayshi had prompted terrorists to change communications patterns.

In early August, the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of closing 19 embassies abroad because of a terrorist threat, a move that set off a media frenzy and raised questions about the specificity of the plot. The Times reported on Aug. 2 that the U.S. had intercepted communications between “senior al Qaeda operatives,” a story which added to the public's understanding of the threat. But the Times, like CNN, withheld the names of the al Qaeda leaders at the U.S. government's request.

However, McClatchy revealed the names on Aug. 4, and James Asher, the newspaper chain’s Washington bureau chief, defended the move.

“It is not unusual for CNN or the NYT to agree not to publish something because the White House asked them,” Asher told HuffPost. “And frankly, our democracy isn't well served when journalists agree to censor their work.”

Given McClatchy’s decision to publish the names, some journalists who cover national security saw the Times’ Monday story as a swipe at a competitor and an attempt to rationalize the paper’s decision to withhold details because the government had raised national security concerns at the time.

The journalists questioning the article -- who were not permitted to speak on behalf of their employers -- suggested to HuffPost that the Times didn’t put McClatchy’s reporting in context, considering it came days after the embassies were shut down and amid several leaks from U.S. officials talking up a possible terrorist attack. These prior moves would have likely already made Al Qaeda’s leadership aware their communications had been compromised, they said. And the Times, rather than focusing on McClatchy's publication of the leak, could have given more scrutiny to U.S. officials' role in spreading the terrorist plot information to (the presumably wrong) people in Yemen.

In addition, the Times reported Monday that the al Qaeda leak did "more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts” than disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The claim strongly implied that those NSA disclosures are damaging counterterrorism efforts on some level -- though the Times reported new revelations about the disclosures on the previous day’s front page.

HuffPost has reported previously how anonymous U.S. officials made a coordinated effort in June to claim that Snowden’s leaks had similarly caused terrorists to change communications methods, assertions that were not backed up by strong evidence and largely ignored previous reports of al Qaeda switching tactics years ago because of surveillance fears.

In a Monday afternoon email to The Huffington Post, McClatchy's Asher described the Times story as “odd" and said the U.S. government had not brought any concerns to the paper after publication. And in a McClatchy follow-up report Monday night, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen called the Times’ premise “laughable.”

Sullivan, the public editor, also had concerns with the story, writing Thursday that “anonymous government sources -- described in the vaguest possible way (for example, 'one United States official') -- are unquestioningly allowed to play their favorite press-bashing hand, featuring the national security card.”

“In so doing,” she wrote “they seem to take a swipe at a news organization that competes with The Times.”