I was surprised by the reactions to my account of a decision to kill a story about tactics the military is using in the battle against Improvised Explosive Devices. They ran the gamut from praise for being "highly responsible" to suggestions that I be fired for being such a pushover for the military. In between, there were some people who said, in effect, "Wait a minute. You said you didn't find the military's argument for why the story would help the enemy particularly convincing, and you also said that in the past when you've held stories it's turned out that nothing bad would have happened if you had gone with the story. So tell me again why you held this story."
First, part of my job includes telling the stories of the dead and wounded, so I am acutely sensitive to the human costs of war. One visit to the physical therapy room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one look at all those young bodies torn apart by IEDs and all those young families whose lives have been turned upside down, and you know you never want to report anything that could remotely contribute to those awful wounds. So that's my going in position.
Second, much of the criticism was that I had allowed "the government" to kill the story, the implication being that I had caved into the Bush administration. I wasn't dealing with "the government;" I was dealing with one senior military officer. He wasn't making any outlandish threats that I would have the blood of American boys on my hands or that I would never work in the Pentagon again. He was simply telling me that in his opinion the information in that story would help the enemy build deadlier IEDs. I decided to accept his opinion as better than my own, and I decided to accept his opinion as more relevant than my experience that none of the other stories I've held over the years would, in retrospect, have done any harm.
Third, the story about IEDs raised no larger issues. It was interesting, but there was nothing questionable about what the military was doing. It's not like this was a story about warrantless eavesdropping in which you have to weigh the government's claim about the need for secrecy against the larger issue of the legality of the eavesdropping. The same week I killed the story on IEDs, I did a story on new photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, photos the Pentagon had gone to court in an effort to keep secret, arguing that their publication could lead to violence against American soldiers. I found that a stretch, and I had no qualms about doing the story. Why does one seem like an attempt to suppress a bad news story and the other seem like a concern for legitimate secrecy? Like I said, you know it when you see it. But it was a close call, and I can understand why some people would think it was the wrong call.