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New chapter in battle of words over tracking terrorist financing
San Francisco Chronicle


June 29, 2006

Republicans in Congress, conservative commentators and like-minded bloggers have taken an aggressive, blame-the-media tone after recent newspaper articles that detail how the administration is monitoring international bank transfers to track terrorist financing.

Some want to charge reporters and editors with treason and espionage for publishing stories that they say compromise America's national security.

Free speech advocates say there is little legal precedent to pursue such charges, but they expect the Justice Department to soon take some sort of legal action to thwart journalistic probing of the White House's data mining.




Although President Bush promised in a speech two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that federal officials would work with financial institutions to trace money transfers to terrorists, last week the New York Times and other newspapers revealed details of those efforts. Bush called the disclosures "disgraceful."

"The question becomes (for the White House), 'Is this a battle we want to fight, or do we just want to scare the hell out of the New York Times?' " said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Francisco-based California First Amendment Coalition.

Others, like Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said such an effort to prosecute reporters for treason for reporting on this story is "just really stupid."

The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal reported about the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, but the New York Times has taken the brunt of the GOP blowback.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., wants to pull the congressional press credentials for the New York Times. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., asked the administration to assess what damage the stories caused to the tracking program. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., accused the paper of "treason," and Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., said, "The New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people." King asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to begin a criminal investigation of the paper.

San Francisco talk show host Melanie Morgan believes that Times editor Bill Keller should be jailed for treason for approving the publication.

The maximum penalty for treason is death.

"If he were to be tried and convicted of treason, yes, I would have no problem with him being sent to the gas chamber," Morgan, whose show airs on KSFO-AM, told The Chronicle. "It is about revealing classified secrets in the time of war. And the media has got to take responsibility for revealing classified information that is putting American lives at risk."

The accusations of treasonous media may play well on TV shoutfests like MSNBC's "Hardball," where Morgan appeared this week, and on the conservative-friendly FOX News, but legal experts say the administration has little legal precedent to prosecute journalists under the 1917 Espionage Act.

"It's never been tried before," said Dalglish, whose nonprofit organization provides legal advice to reporters. Still, she's noticed that the reaction to the recent bank transfer stories "seems highly organized. More coordinated than it usually is, and targeted at the New York Times."

The reason, hypothesized Dalglish, Morgan and other media-watchers: The White House is angry at the New York Times for repeatedly breaking stories that reveal covert surveillance programs. In December, the Times reported that the National Security Agency was conducting warrantless monitoring of U.S. phone calls in the pursuit of suspected terrorists.

"The press is the only watchdog left, because Congress isn't overseeing these programs," Dalglish said. "These seem like a diversionary tactic by the White House. They need to point the finger at somebody to keep people from talking about the war in Iraq. So they're pointing it at the media."

Regardless, the conservative critique of the Times and other media outlets may have worked, at least temporarily, as political diversionary tactic.

As the focus centers on whether to blame the leak and the leakers, any national debate that may have occurred over the ethics of federal officials peeking at bank transfers has been obscured by a red-versus-blue media scrum. The question has become: Was it right to publish the story?

"By now, it's undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat," began a piece in the July 3 edition of the conservative Weekly Standard defending the administration's program. "So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives.

"Al Qaeda has long worked to manipulate the media in its favor. It can disband that operation now, knowing that, unbidden, America's most powerful newspaper is looking out for its interests," the article concluded.


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