Charlie Stadtlander, director of external communications for the New York Times, joined the paper directly from the National Security Agency, where he served as head of public affairs.
According to Stadtlander’s LinkedIn page, he’s worked for the Times since January 2022. Before that, he held his position at the NSA starting in 2019. His only listed job in the media before the New York Times is as a journalism teacher for three months in 2010, when he served as an “instructor to gifted children, ages 8-13” at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
The Times corporate website publishes a constant stream of short posts about staffers joining the paper or changing positions, including in its external communications department. However, the news of Stadtlander’s hiring and his background does not appear on the webpage of press releases.
All of this raises obvious questions. Is being the spokesperson for the nation’s most prestigious newspaper a completely different job from being the spokesperson for the NSA? Or are they pretty much the same job? Most importantly, are the perspectives of the two institutions fundamentally different — or are they, in more ways than you might imagine, fundamentally the same?
The NSA serves as the hub of America’s cybersurveillance. One NSA director claimed that it had the largest budget and most personnel of any U.S. government intelligence organization.
It’s also been the most secretive. The NSA was founded in 1952, but the government did not acknowledge that it existed at all until a Senate investigation in 1975. Staffers there often joked that NSA stood for “No Such Agency” or “Never Say Anything.” The reporter Daniel Schorr once recalled that when he attempted to film an on-camera segment standing outside the NSA gates at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, a Marine threatened to shoot him.
The NSA and the Times have their own specific, fraught history, especially concerning the paper’s coverage of the agency during the George W. Bush administration. Stadtlander had nothing to do with it from either side — indeed, he was still in college at the time — but the episode illustrates the tangled dynamic between the Times and the national security state.
In late summer 2004, then-Times reporter James Risen learned from a source that the NSA was engaging in a gigantic domestic surveillance program, spying on Americans without court approval. What happened next was incredible, as explained by Risen, now senior national security correspondent for The Intercept.
Risen and his fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau worked on the story until they had a draft that fall. Risen called one of Stadtlander’s predecessors at the NSA and asked to talk to Gen. Michael Hayden, who was then running the agency. Hayden did not deny the story, but subsequently, he and the rest of the Bush administration put on a full-court press to spike it.
Bill Keller, the paper’s editor at the time, folded. The Times didn’t publish, and Bush was reelected in November 2004 without voters knowing about the NSA’s wiretapping. Keller later explained that his actions were not due to “a kind of patriotic rapture,” but rather “an acute sense that the world was a dangerous place.”
Here Keller was echoing famous words of Katharine Graham, the legendary owner and publisher of the Washington Post. In a speech at the CIA in 1988, Graham declared that “we live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”
The NSA story was essentially dead at the Times until Risen informed his editors that he planned to include it in his book “State of War,” set for publication at the beginning of 2006. The Times ran Risen and Lichtblau’s reporting just before it came out, in December 2005. They subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for it.
The NSA was again unhappily shoved into the spotlight in 2013, when the whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed an NSA program that allowed warrantless, Google-like searches of vast troves of Americans’ internet-use data. Government surveillance subsequently became subject to heated public debate during the second term of the Obama administration.
Since Stadtlander’s hiring by the Times, his name has appeared in other publications as he does his job: making various bland proclamations about the devotion of the Times to the highest journalistic standards. After the Times received two letters criticizing its coverage of trans issues — one from over 1,000 Times contributors and one from the advocacy group GLAAD — he issued a statement saying, “Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”
While at the NSA, Stadtlander similarly did his job, making similarly bland pronouncements, except then about the NSA’s devotion to the highest governmental standards. “NSA’s Office of General Counsel regularly reviews NSA intelligence programs and capabilities to ensure compliance with the Constitution, laws, and other applicable regulations and policies,” he told the Washington Post in June 2021.
Before the NSA, Stadtlander had the same genre of job at the U.S. Army Cyber Command, as well as the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan. In 2012, while working for the ISAF in Kabul, Stadtlander blandly told the Los Angeles Times that the Afghan military had “made great strides” in logistics. According to the Los Angeles Times, Stadtlander “cited an operation last month in which the army supplied 10,000 troops with fuel for 16 days with no ISAF assistance.”
The accuracy of this chipper assessment can be measured by the fact that after the U.S. and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, the Afghan army collapsed within days.
Stadtlander did not respond to a request for comment but passed it to his boss Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times senior vice president. Rhoades Ha provided a statement by email: “Charlie is a talented communications professional, who has embodied our mission and values in his work on behalf of the company.”
Positions such as Stadtlander’s at the Times have no influence over coverage or editorial decisions. However, his hiring reflects the flow of staff between influential corporate news outlets and U.S. national security institutions. This is particularly true in the world of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Google all currently employ a notable number of former CIA and FBI personnel.
Their general attitude toward the media obviously varies, but it’s worth remembering a story told by Morley Safer, the CBS reporter who later went on to be a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” in 1966 about his experiences during the Vietnam War. Safer and other reporters met with Arthur Sylvester, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson, when Sylvester visited Saigon. Sylvester had been hired away from his journalistic job as Washington bureau chief of the Newark News.
According to Safer, this is what happened:
“I can’t understand how you fellows can write what you do while American boys are dying out here,” [Sylvester] began. Then he went on to the effect that American correspondents had a patriotic duty to disseminate only information that made the United States look good.
A network television correspondent said, “Surely, Arthur, you don’t expect the American press to be the handmaidens of government.”
“That’s exactly what I expect,” came the reply. …
At this point, the Hon. Arthur Sylvester put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.
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