Susan Jones | Senior Editor | Wednesday, June 28, 2006
In a nutshell, the editorial argued:
-- that the New York Times is accustomed to being criticized for doing its job. (As the editorial put it, "Over the last year, The New York Times has twice published reports about secret antiterrorism programs being run by the Bush administration. Both times, critics have claimed that the paper was being unpatriotic or even aiding the terrorists.")
-- that publication of the story did not put any specific person in danger. (Editorial: "The...story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals.")
-- that terror groups should have known all along that their money transfers were being watched. ("Terrorist groups would have had to be fairly credulous not to suspect that they would be subject to scrutiny if they moved money around through international wire transfers," the editorial said.)
-- that the United Nations publicly mentioned the money-tracking program four years ago. ("In fact, a United Nations group...recommended in 2002 that other countries should follow the United States' lead in monitoring suspicious transactions handled by Swift [a banking consortium]. The report is public and available on the United Nations Web site," the editorial said.)
The New York Times editorial said the newspaper operates on the assumption that it "should let the people know anything important that the reporters learn, unless there is some grave and overriding reason for withholding the information."
The editorial said its reporters "try hard" not to base their publish-or-not-publish decisions on political calculations -- "like whether a story would help or hurt the administration."
The paper then called it "unlikely" that "anyone who wanted to hurt the Bush administration politically would try to do so by writing about the government's extensive efforts to make it difficult for terrorists to wire large sums of money."
But many critics, members of Congress among them, say the entire point of the story was to make the Bush administration look bad in a sneaky, "Big-Brother-watching-you" sort of way.
And in a nod to that suggestion, The New York Times editorial goes on to say that the financial tracking story "looks like part of an alarming pattern" in the Bush administration.
"Ever since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has taken the necessity of heightened vigilance against terrorism and turned it into a rationale for an extraordinarily powerful executive branch, exempt from the normal checks and balances of our system of government. It has created powerful new tools of surveillance and refused, almost as a matter of principle, to use normal procedures that would acknowledge that either Congress or the courts have an oversight role," the editorial said.
The editorial says the Bush administration's efforts to track the global flow of terrorists' money "is very much the sort of thing the other branches of government, and the public, should be nervously aware of."
The editorial board's final defense is that the United States -- now waging a long-term war on terror -- must couple the fight "with a commitment to individual liberties that define America's side in the battle." And it say the "free press" has a key role in providing information that "the public needs to make things right again."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, reportedly has asked the national intelligence director, John Negroponte, to assess the damage to national security stemming from the New York Times' decision to publish the story.
(Although the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal also reported details of the money-tracking program, the New York Times is taking the brunt of the criticism.)
In a letter to the editor of the New York Times published on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary John Snow expressed his disgust with the paper:
"The New York Times' decision to disclose the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, a robust and classified effort to map terrorist networks through the use of financial data, was irresponsible and harmful to the security of Americans and freedom-loving people worldwide," Snow wrote.
"In choosing to expose this program, despite repeated pleas from high-level officials on both sides of the aisle, including myself, the Times undermined a highly successful counter-terrorism program and alerted terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trails."
President Bush has called publication of the story "disgraceful."
And some members of Congress, including Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Sen. James Bunning (R-Ky.), have accused the New York Times of outright treason -- and they're demanding a federal investigation.
"That the press wouldn't have better sense than to leak critical information on terrorists so that they know what we're doing -- that scares the devil out of me," Bunning told reporters on Tuesday.
Bunning wants a federal grand jury to decide if the newspapers' publisher, editors and writers should be indicted for treason. And he's calling for the prosecution of whoever leaked the story in the first place.
Rep. King told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly that terror groups such as al Qaeda did not know the extent to which the United States has been able to follow their money transactions until the New York Times ran its story.
He said the newspaper can't have it both ways: "On the one hand, they're saying, 'We had to go public because it was so secret.' But now they're saying there's no harm in going public because everybody knew about it."
Some Members of Congress say the New York Times should have its congressional press credentials revoked.
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