Friday, June 23, 2006


The New York Times: All The News That Hurts Republicans

...even if it hurts Democrats too. Unbelievable.

The blogosphere is up in arms this morning about a new article -- published more or less simultaneously in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, apparently -- detailing yet another top-secret terrorist surveillance program that our Fifth Estate thought needed exposing. (Pajamas Media has a roundup.)

With thanks to Instapundit, this summary from the New York Sun:
A fresh barrage of criticism is erupting over the decision of The New York Times to disclose last night another classified surveillance program aimed at gathering information about terrorist plots.

"The president is concerned that, once again, the New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is protecting the American people," a White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said last night. "We know that terrorists look for any clue about the weapons we're using to fight them and now, with this exposure, they have more information and it increases the challenge for our law enforcement and intelligence officials."

The Times report, which appears in today's editions and was posted last evening on the paper's Web site, details the federal government's use of subpoenas to gather large troves of data from a Belgium-based consortium that handles international bank transfers, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as Swift.
. . .
The newspaper said the surveillance effort helped lead to the capture in Thailand in 2003 of a top Al Qaeda op erative, Riduan Isamuddin, who also went by the name Hambali.

The Times reported that it decided to report publicly on the program despite requests by administration officials that the newspaper not publish the story. The officials argued that the disclosure could reduce the effort's effectiveness, the newspaper said.

The executive editor of the Times, Bill Keller, said the newspaper was not persuaded. "We have listened closely to the administration's arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration," Mr. Keller said. "We remain convinced that the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest."
Once again, in other words, it is the New York Times that is the final arbiter of classified information -- not the intelligence community, and most especially not the executive branch of our federal government. (Who do they think they are, anyway? They may have been elected, or something, but they didn't go to J-school!)

As Bill Bennett was commenting this morning, the reason the New York Times is doing this is... because they can. There is no cost to them for doing this -- well, no obvious cost, although were I in there place I'd wonder about their ever-declining readership. But as long as they don't get smacked down for doing something they shouldn't, they're going to keep on doing it.

Forgive me for repeating the blatantly obvious... but people respond to incentives. If the New York Times has no clear incentive, in their terms, to stop what they are doing -- which is to expose any classified government programs they can get leaked -- then they're going to keep doing it.

Let me add a few more thoughts. First, as bad as I think this is, I have to say that the New York Times has done worse. Yes, they're doing their best to shut down a program that has proven effective at hunting down terrorist ringleaders, and shame on them for it; they're also betraying trust that the worldwide financial community had in the United States. But at least they're not directly endangering lives with their recklessness this time.

And yes, I understand the arguments -- just as it was easy to alarm people with the hysterical claim that "the NSA is wiretapping American phone conversations without a warrant!" (which is a gross exaggeration on several counts), so too it's easy to exaggerate this one: "the US government wants to know where your money is going!" (The details aren't out on this one yet -- I wish they had stayed secret altogether -- but I strongly suspect that very few Americans were affected at all by this, simply because very few Americans perform international money transfers via SWIFT in their personal affairs. American businesses might have a more valid claim here -- but it's not on their behalf that the New York Times is complaining about this, is it?)

Let's be honest, now. When was the last time you made a SWIFT international money transfer? Have you ever made a SWIFT transfer that you didn't want the police to find out about? And if not, why on Earth should you care if SWIFT records -- obtained through valid subpoenas -- are being combed for terrorist information?

The New York Times clearly does not understand what "classified" means, nor do they have any respect for anyone's secrets but their own. During wartime, that is criminal.

Hmm, now there's a thought. Naturally, there have been cries from conservatives for the NYT to be prosecuted under espionage laws; no doubt this will inspire more calls for legal action. But suppose the NYT had a taste of their own medicine? Suppose someone at the New York Times started leaking NYT news stories, before they are published, to other newspapers? (Later -- looks like Uncle Jimbo prefers a more direct approach.)

Somehow, I have a feeling that the esteemed Gray Lady wouldn't like that... even though we'd be talking, not about secrets that compromise national security, but merely secrets that could reduce (further reduce) NYT circulation. Hmm, what a pity that would be...

UPDATE: AP reports that the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) carried the original story too. That seems rather out of character for them, as compared to the NYT or the LAT. But if they're guilty of exposing classified information, I'd want them hit just as hard.

Later: reader Daniel T. points out that the Wall Street Journal article is not of a piece with the LAT and NYT articles; it clearly came out after government representatives themselves had spoken on the record about the program. This is legitimate; the information was already part of the public record. (It's also to their credit that they make no mention of the NYT or the LAT; they do quote Treasury Secretary Snow on the leaks and revelations of classified information, calling it "regrettable".

The NYT article, moreover, is datelined June 22nd; the LAT piece is dated June 23rd. I don't know if we can establish precedence here. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the NYT taking the lead in exposing American security secrets to the enemy, once again.

UPDATE II: Austin Bay has more to say, and is not ready to let WSJ off the hook. Jim Dunnigan of Current Affairs has no compunctions about openly calling this treason:
Because the war on terror is fought in a peacetime atmosphere, treason can be presented as dissent, and you can get away with it. Case in point is the energetic pursuit, and publication, of U.S. intelligence gathering techniques, by the American media
. . .
Again, the threat to civil liberties, relative to the lack of a real terrorist threat, was used to justify what was basically treason in time of war. But the war on terror is not a normal war. There's no country to declare war on, so there's no formal declaration of war. Every war has it's dissenters and opposition politicians criticizing how the war is fought. The unique nature of the war on terror, with much of the action being on the domestic front, has us searching for terrorists among our own population. This leads to opposition groups depicting success against the terrorists (no attacks) as the absence of a real threat. This leads to implications that the government is using the war on terror to establish government intelligence gathering programs that threaten civil liberties.
. . .
These traitors will continue to get away with it. Unless their activities are shown to assist terrorists in a particularly direct and obvious way, scary stories about potential perils will continue to protect those attacking the counter-terrorism effort. By blurring the line between legitimate dissent and active assistance to the enemy, political opportunism has sunk to new lows.
(emphasis added)

I believe this is an important point, one too often neglected by liberal and conservative pundits alike. The terrorists, by definition, will wish to continue what they started on 9/11/2001 if they can, which means domestic attacks. Since terrorists are not a national government, and therefore do not have the military resources for a naval confrontation or a land invasion or a missile attack, their methods of choice will, by definition, include launching attacks on America from within America. Also by definition, the terrorists will use actual U.S. citizens to carry the ball whenever possible, so as to keep the heat away from the known foreign nationals.

These are all well-known time-tested terrorist tactics. And they point to an inescapable conclusion: if we are to prevent further attacks on America, we must search for terrorists among our own population -- and that search will occasionally lead us to U.S. citizens. (Remember John Walker Lindh? Remember Richard Reid?)

Those who seek to sabotage that search, therefore, fundamentally do not understand what the War on Terror means. Their efforts will make further attacks on U.S. soil more likely -- for which they would no doubt be the first to condemn the U.S. government, for not preventing such attacks with their hands tied.

UPDATE III: The Instapundit offers one of his rare multi-paragraph commentaries here:
BILL KELLER ISN'T VERY BRIGHT, or else he thinks you aren't. How else to explain this passage in his apologia for the Times' publication of classified information about the terrorist financial surveillance program:

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government's anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that's the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)

I realize that the Times' circulation is falling at an alarming rate, but it hasn't yet reached such a pass that its stories are only noticed when Rush Limbaugh mentions them.

The arrogance here is amazing. Does Keller mean to imply that the NYT can publish top-secret information as it sees fit, and it is not up to us to complain about it publicly? Does he fail to understand, as any Journalism 101 student would, that once a secret story is widely published it doesn't much matter who talks about it? Or does he think, As Glenn Reynolds implies, that publication in the NYT is inconsequential, so long as it hasn't been picked up by the blogs?

A deeper error is Keller's characterization of freedom of the press as an institutional privilege, an error that is a manifestation of the hubris that has marked the NYT of late. Keller writes: "It's an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. . . . The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly."

The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn't give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of Constitutional High Priest, when in fact the "freedom of the press" the Framers described was also called "freedom in the use of the press." It's the freedom to publish, a freedom that belongs to everyone in equal portions, not a special privilege for the media industry. (A bit more on this topic can be found here.)

Characterizing the freedom this way, of course, makes much of Keller's piece look like, well, just what it is -- arrogant and self-justificatory posturing. To quote Keller: "Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but it's the kind of elementary context that sometimes gets lost in the heat of strong disagreements."

Or institutional self-importance. As Hugh Hewitt observes, at the conclusion to a much lengthier critique: "He doesn't have any defense other than his position as editor of a once great newspaper."

And the Constitution does not permit titles of nobility.

Indeed. Sometimes it's easy to forget that Glenn Reynolds is also a lawyer. (So is Hugh Hewitt. As far as I know, Bill Keller is not.)

Another great roundup, complete with legal analysis, can be found here.

UPDATE IV: Courtesy of Powerline, the text of a letter sent to the editor of the NYT by outgoing Treasury Secretary, John Snow. An excerpt:
Your charge that our efforts to convince The New York Times not to publish were "half-hearted" is incorrect and offensive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the past two months, Treasury has engaged in a vigorous dialogue with the Times - from the reporters writing the story to the D.C. Bureau Chief and all the way up to you. It should also be noted that the co-chairmen of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission, Governor Tom Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, met in person or placed calls to the very highest levels of the Times urging the paper not to publish the story. Members of Congress, senior U.S. Government officials and well-respected legal authorities from both sides of the aisle also asked the paper not to publish or supported the legality and validity of the program.

Indeed, I invited you to my office for the explicit purpose of talking you out of publishing this story. And there was nothing "half-hearted" about that effort.
Read the whole thing.

UPDATE V: Armed Liberal has a somewhat different perspective:
I don't think that the newspapers are treasonous, or doing this solely in an effort to thwart President Bush (i.e. I don't think that a Democratic president would be getting a free ride right now). That doesn't mean that the impacts of what they are doing doesn't damage the country, put lives at risk, or negatively impact President Bush's effectiveness.

I think, in simple terms, that they have forgotten that they are citizens...
to which Glenn Reynolds responds:
I think that they're offended at the notion that citizenship might involve obligations to do something other than what you want to do anyway.
Armed Liberal goes on, at great and interesting length; read the whole thing.


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