Suzanne Goldenberg

To discussNew York Timesinvestigation on surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Washington: It must rank as one of the most awkward editorial conclaves ever held. On December 5, three senior personnel from the New York Times were summoned to the Oval Office by (U.S. President) George Bush to discuss an investigation the newspaper was conducting on surveillance of U.S. citizens.

According to Newsweek magazine, which first reported the gathering, the President called in the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, Executive Editor Bill Keller, and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman, with the express purpose of persuading them not to publish a story that he had authorised surveillance of U.S. citizens without court oversight - a story it had already sat on for a year.

Last week, the Washington Post's media column revealed that Post's editor Leonard Downie Jr was also summoned to the Oval Office, before publication of its story that the CIA was running a network of secret detention centres in eastern Europe. In both instances, the stated motive for the Oval Office meeting was national security, and the Post and the Times were warned that publication could damage the national interest.

Phone taps

Mr. Bush does not seem to have made his case very well. The Post story appeared on November 2. The Times story on the warrant-less phone taps was published on December 16. ''After listening respectfully to the administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it,'' Mr. Keller said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. However, media commentators say following the attacks on the World Trade Center, news organisations were reluctant to challenge the White House on national security. ''September 11 really knocked a lot of people for a huge loop in this country, and the Bush administration was able to use that in a way that made political opposition seem unpatriotic,'' says Michael Tomasky, executive editor of the American Prospect.

Four years on, there is less pressure on news organisations to demonstrate patriotism, but Mr. Tomasky claims public institutions such as the Times are constrained by intense scrutiny from rightwing blogs. The frequency with which Mr. Bush has personally sought to frame coverage, and the degree to which such encounters affect decisions on what should - and should not - be published remains unclear. Neither newspaper initially disclosed the summons to the White House. However, both admitted making some concessions to administration officials. -

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004