By JAY AMBROSE
Scripps Howard News Service
June 27, 2006
In an institutional act even more reprehensible than the plagiarism and made-up stories of the notorious former reporter Jayson Blair, the Times has provided previously unknown details of an intelligence program that has accomplished the arrest of a top, civilian-murdering al Qaeda operative and otherwise thwarted life-ending terrorist ambitions.
Blair's stories hurt the newspaper's reputation for integrity and credibility. This story on how the government tracks terrorist funding likewise hurts the paper while also hurting America as a whole by telling the enemy how he might be found out. Said Tony Snow, presidential press secretary, the Times and other papers that broke the story "ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know" counts for more than "somebody's right to live ..."
The Times struggles in its original story to find some justification for it. At one point, it quotes an official saying that "the potential for abuse is enormous." Excuse me, but every government program in existence has potential for abuse. The New York Times has potential for abuse - and realized that potential in proceeding with this story without solid reason to believe anything serious was amiss.
The only thing clearly illegal in the program and the story about it was the sharing of classified information with reporters. The best the Times could do was to say the program "stirred concerns" about "legal and privacy issues " and that "difficult" questions are raised. There is no constitutional problem here, and it appears that U.S. privacy statutes don't apply to the organization the United States has been principally watching - a Belgian consortium that specializes in wiring money all over the world.
What is more, as the Times story notes, "tight controls are in place," even to the extent that the government has engaged an outside auditing firm to watch what it is doing.
A defensive letter by Times executive editor Bill Keller seems to blame public anger about the story on "conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits" - oh, no, not those upstart hoi polloi, again! - and asks parenthetically why they are attracting so much attention to it if they consider it dangerous. Give me a break. The Times shouted this story from the rooftop, otherwise known as the front page. Keller then thinks terrorists won't notice if no one criticizes the Times? It's yours, Bill - this year's award for being disingenuous.
Keller then tells us that a free press is a check on government in this country. OK, but the government was up to nothing bad here. He says the government doesn't like newspapers departing from the "official line." True, but irrelevant to this story, whose publication, by the way, was opposed by Democrats as well as Republicans. He cites other stories the paper was correct in publishing. So what? He cites occasions when the paper backed off from publishing stories. Fine, again, but having neglected to rob three banks doesn't make it permissible to put on your mask and whip out your automatic when you come to a fourth.
"Forgive me," Keller says, " 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."
Uh, huh, right, and there is more sophistry to come. Keller tells us that the Treasury Department had already signaled terrorists that it was searching hither and yon for their financial dealings and that the terrorists had abandoned the international system as much as possible. But Keller cannot know that for sure, and he cannot know that the Times did not assist terrorists by publishing facts that had previously been secret. Treasury Secretary John Snow says this Times rationale "betrays a breathtaking arrogance."
Since the Times thought it ethical, prudent and patriotic to publish this story, it is hard to imagine what other covert operations they would refuse to disclose, not matter how detrimental the disclosures were to their country.
Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff - but it's the sort of stuff Bill Keller ought to know.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.