Monday, October 23, 2006
News Flash: NYT Apologizes
I'm trying to come up with something even lamer than this. But I'm having a hard time.
Okay, so the New York Times finds out about a top-secret NSA program to track down terrorists by following their finances, via SWIFT international bank transfers -- and, in spite of strong government pleas (pleas???) not to publish, including appeals (appeals???) from high ranking Democratic members of the 9/11 Committee -- the New York Times does it anyway, splashing the story on its front page and keeping it there for months.
It becomes abundantly clear, immediately thereafter, that (a) this harms America's reputation, and ability to conduct law-enforcement operations, in the world at large (because worldwide financial institutions counted on the United States to keep a secret, which we apparently can't do); and that (b) this harms America's ability to find the terrorists taking aim at us, because they will now avoid using SWIFT transactions.
(To the best of my knowledge, by the way, we've been able to deal with the former problem; somehow relations with the financial world and with other law-enforcement communities were repaired. But there's nothing we can do about the latter problem. Even if some terrorists suspected that SWIFT transactions were monitored, not all did, and enough used SWIFT to give us data we could use. Now a terrorist would have to be a drooling idiot to use SWIFT for any purpose at all -- and a valuable data-source for the terrorist-hunters has, I'm sure, dried up considerably.)
And now, several months after the barn door was swung open and the secret let loose on the world, the New York Times apologizes. Well, no, it's not the New York Times as a whole; it's just the ombudsman. And he isn't really apologizing, for jeopardizing national security or anything else; he's simply admitting that, months after the fact, he has changed his mind, and believes that a mistake was made.
But no, it's even lamer than that. Did Barney Calame run a front-page column for this? No, his change of heart appears in the Opinions section of yesterday's Sunday Times -- and it's buried in the bottom of a column on something else entirely (titled "Can ‘Magazines’ of The Times Subsidize News Coverage?", with a lead paragraph that deals with perfume critics, fer Gossake).
And we're not done; it's even lamer than that. I quote verbatim, from paragraph 16 (and onwards) of the column:
Banking Data: A Mea CulpaSo, let's see if I have this straight:
Since the job of public editor requires me to probe and question the published work and wisdom of Times journalists, there’s a special responsibility for me to acknowledge my own flawed assessments.
My July 2 column strongly supported The Times’s decision to publish its June 23 article on a once-secret banking-data surveillance program. After pondering for several months, I have decided I was off base. There were reasons to publish the controversial article, but they were slightly outweighed by two factors to which I gave too little emphasis. While it’s a close call now, as it was then, I don’t think the article should have been published.
Those two factors are really what bring me to this corrective commentary: the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused. I had mentioned both as being part of “the most substantial argument against running the story,” but that reference was relegated to the bottom of my column.
The source of the data, as my column noted, was the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift. That Belgium-based consortium said it had honored administrative subpoenas from the American government because it has a subsidiary in this country.
I haven’t found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws. Although data-protection authorities in Europe have complained that the formerly secret program violated their rules on privacy, there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken. Data-protection rules are often stricter in Europe than in America, and have been a frequent source of friction.
Also, there still haven’t been any abuses of private data linked to the program, which apparently has continued to function. That, plus the legality issue, has left me wondering what harm actually was avoided when The Times and two other newspapers disclosed the program. The lack of appropriate oversight — to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention — was a key reason I originally supported publication. I think, however, that I gave it too much weight.
In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn’t a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a “secret” program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism.)
What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers about in my first column.
Mr. Calame now disagrees with the need to blow the whistle on this program, because it was (a) legal, and (b) has not been abused vis-a-vis the private data of American citizens. (Gee whiz, couldn't you have figured that out before going public?)
He says it is still "a close call" -- and continues to call it that, while simultaneously demolishing any valid reasons for publishing it in the first place. (If a top-secret government program, during wartime, is producing positive results, is legal, is not adversely affecting American citizens or their civil liberties, and is under wraps, with government officials from the Cabinet on down begging that the story stay secret -- then why on Earth should the decision to publish be a "close call"? What rationale remains for publishing it at all, other than the NYT's falling ratings and political bias?)
Oh, and just for good measure, we have a full complement of weasel-worded phrases here. He calls it "a once-secret program", but doesn't mention that it's no longer secret because of the organization he works for. He also laments that a particular sentence in the original article could have been phrased better, so that the NYT could have handled the criticism more easily -- which, of course, has nothing at all to do with whether or not it was a good idea to run the story.
Then he cites his "embarrassment" as a factor. (Hmm, I have to wonder -- if a terrorist attack is not averted when it could have been, because the NYT spilled the beans, will Mr. Calame still be embarrassed?)
And finally, just to make it even lamer, Mr. Calame blames "the vicious criticism of the Times by the Bush Administration" for coloring his judgement and causing him to behave unprofessionally. (As many others have noted, just what does the Bush Administration, no less, have to say to the NYT, no less, to be called "vicious"? Presumably it would have to be at least as bad as what the NYT has been saying about the Bush Administration for the past five years.)
Oh, and then Mr. Calame has the audacity to blame his readers -- by insisting that he told them about his bias "for the underdog" in his very first column. So, you see, we really couldn't have expected any better of him -- because he warned us.
How lame. How incredibly, incredibly lame. (How does that guy pronounce his last name, I wonder?)
The blogosphere is all over this. Michelle Malkin digs a bit deeper into what, exactly, Mr. Calame could have meant by "vicious criticism". Powerline has more. Glenn Reynolds says: "So the New York Times damaged national security by tipping terrorists off to the existence and nature of a legal program that was not being abused. Remember that the next time they declare their own fitness to be trusted with national security decisions." The Squiggler has a link-rich roundup.
Many people (Ms. Malkin among others) are calling for Calame's resignation. I disagree, on two counts. First, I don't think he should lose his job, just for being the only person at the NYT to show even a modest amount of integrity on this issue. Heck, if he's showing higher ethical standards than the NYT general editor -- albeit not by much -- then perhaps he should be promoted.
Second, if this is the best that the NYT has to offer, then by all means, let him stay in place. He's a better advertisement for the Republican Party than he knows.
By the way: while writing my closing paragraphs, above, I wanted to look up the contact info for the head honchos at the New York Times. To my surprise, they don't want to publish that information -- and they provide more weasel-words to justify themselves:
Unfortunately, because of the volume of mail from readers, we cannot do research for the public or provide general contact information. You can find the e-mail addresses for many reporters, editors and departments by sending a request to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Readers are welcome to send reports of errors that warrant correction directly to the newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org, but such e-mails may also be sent to the public editor's e-mail address below.Translation: "our editorial staff receives too much e-mail, so we don't want to publish their contact information. Ask us for it nicely, and we'll provide it to you privately, if we feel like it".
Now that's what I call a responsive newspaper.