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Margaret Sullivan, New York Times Editor, says the Times isn't what it used to be

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 6/21/2013, 11:52 a.m.

"The Old Gray Lady," the New York Times, appears to be miffed that it was not the recipient of the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden, now in Hong Kong and promising to fight extradition. Snowden, unlike Daniel Ellsberg with his "Pentagon Papers," chose to deliver his disclosures to the Guardian of London and the Washington Post.

In last Sunday's Times, Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor, expounded on why her paper is no longer what it used to be, no longer the first choice for whistleblowers. "When news sources want to go public with a major revelation, they don't need the Times," she lamented. "Look no further than Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed widespread government surveillance of phone records and Internet activity."

One of the things that might have discouraged Snowden from taking his story to the Times was what he knew of their past slowness when dealing with such information. Sullivan traces this hesitancy back to 2005, when the Times sat on a story by two of its investigative reporters. The Times held this story about government eavesdropping, she said, at the "urging of the Bush administration, which claimed it would hurt national security." In 2006, when the Times finally published the story, it earned the reporters the Pulitzer Prize.

Snowden's story may not win a top prize, but Daniel Ellsberg rates it among the best ever. "There has been no more significant disclosure in the history of our country," he told the AP. "And I'll include the 'Pentagon Papers' in that."

Rather than risking the foot-dragging at the Old Gray Lady, Snowden chose to blow the whistle with Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the Guardian's U.S.-based website and with the Washington Post, leaving the Times to scramble to catch up with the earthshaking news.

"If 'whistleblowing' is defined as exposing secret government actions so as to inform the public about what they should know, to prompt debate," Greenwald wrote in a recent blog, "then Snowden's actions are the classic case."

Some Republicans are calling Snowden's actions treasonous, which of course they aren't, because his disclosures did not come at a time of war and the information was not shared with an enemy. It's also interesting to know that very little of what he disclosed really qualifies as top clearance information, and it's not even as troubling to national security as the material Pvt. First Class Bradley Manning delivered to WikiLeaks. Moreover, what Snowden disclosed are things that are known by nearly a million other people, which makes the disclosures even less likely to be highly classified documents.

Despite the attacks and attempts to mark Snowden as unpatriotic and equal to a terrorist, a Time magazine poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe he did a "good thing." Only 30 percent disagreed with his actions, and that approval rating is higher than President Barack Obama and Congress'.

But let's get back to the sclerotic Times and Sullivan's admonitions as she quoted counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. "The argument that this sweeping search must be kept secret from the terrorists is laughable," he wrote in a recent article in the New York Daily News. "Terrorists already assume this sort of thing is being done. Only law-abiding American citizens were blissfully ignorant of what their government was doing."

Snowden and other whistleblowers seem to be basically interested in letting the American public know what's going on in the name of national security that might in the long run violate some of our cherished freedoms. When it was reported that the Obama administration was targeting American citizens with drones, there was a massive outpouring of concern about the lack of transparency and congressional oversight.

Whatever the outcome of Snowden's actions--and he could face up to 10 years for each count brought against him in court--there remains a crying need for Americans to be aware of what the government is doing that could endanger not only our civil liberties but our general welfare.

Of course, waiting for the Old Gray Lady to move promptly on these matters might be wishful thinking--she just ain't what she used to be.