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Did the NY and LA Times abuse "freedom of the press"?
Posted by: McQ on Monday, June 26, 2006

Michael Barone weighs in on the government's monitoring of financial transactions routed through SWIFT.
Last Friday, the Times did it again, printing a story revealing the existence of U.S. government monitoring of financial transactions routed through the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which routes about $6 trillion a day in electronic money transfers around the world. The monitoring is conducted by the CIA and supervised by the Treasury Department. An independent auditing firm has been hired to make sure only terrorist-related transactions are targeted.

Members of Congress were briefed on the program, and it does not seem to violate any law, at least any that the Times could identify. And it has been effective. As the Times reporters admit, it helped to locate the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombing in Thailand and a Brooklyn man convicted on charges of laundering a $200,000 payment to al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan.

Once again, Bush administration officials asked the Times not to publish the story. Once again, the Times went ahead anyway. "We have listened closely to the administration's arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration," Bill Keller is quoted as saying. It's interesting to note that he feels obliged to report he and his colleagues weren't smirking or cracking jokes. "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."
We discussed this on our podcast yesterday.

After giving it much thought I've tentatively come down on the side of the government this time, given the program is apparently legal and acknowledged to be secret. While I certainly appreciate and agree with the argument that the media does have a responsibility to provide information it deems in the public interest, it also has a responsibility not to endanger national security and thus the public interest through disclosures of such legal, secret programs.

Is this prosecutable? I don't know. But as Barone points out, this was deliberately done even over the objections of the government. The story revealed a significant legal, secret program used in the War on Terror which may now no longer have any further use. To me that is irresponsible conduct on the part of the LA and NY Times.

It is time to ask when and how the 'public's right to know' became the supreme determiner of what does or doesn't get published by the media. And how does this particular "right" trump national security?

I used an example of "Enigma" on the podcast to illustrate my point. The capture and use of a German code machine during WWII - which allowed us to monitor and decode German military messages - is acknowledged by most historians to have literally saved thousands of allied lives during WWII. I don't think that anyone would argue that its disclosure by the media under the argument that the "public's right to know" is a fundamental right would have morally or ethically passed muster. Inarguably, disclosure would have badly damaged national security and probably cost thousands of allied lives.

While it isn't as clear that such damage has been done by this exposure, what is clear is those it targeted through SWIFT are now warned and will find other avenues to move the money they need to finance terrorist activities. That link and the leads it developed are gone forever. That obviously may lead to the loss of innocent lives.

Secondly, the NY and LA Times each cite the possibility of abuse as a reason the public needed to know. While the possibility exists for any program to be abused, the fact that this particular program has been acknowledged by all as a legal program with Congressional oversight argues that those privacy concerns were being addressed within the law and were being monitored to ensure abuse wasn't a factor. It would seem that unless the two papers could produce actual examples of such abuse, their reason for publishing is weak at best.

Most wouldn't argue against the disclosure of an illegal government program, secret or not. In my estimation, that is is well withing the purview of the media's responsibility and certainly fits providing information "in the public interest". But that doesn't mean any secret program is "in the public interest" to disclose, especially when legal and when it's disclosure may, in fact, work against the public interest.

The media has a responsibility to the public it serves and that is to exercise the proper due diligence when weighing whether to publish a story it has unearthed. The ethical questions surrounding this incident seem pretty clear. Is it in the best interest of the public to know about a legal secret program underway to identify and stop the flow of money to terrorists simply because the potential for abuse exists? Or is it in the best interest of the public that the program remain secret and allow it to continue to protect that very same public from those who would harm them?

Freedom of the press is a very important right, and it is one most feel should be vigorously preserved. But all rights have reciprocal responsibilities for those they protect.

It is fair to say, given the fact that the government objected and the papers published anyway, that right was acknowledged on the one side. However, it isn't as clear that the press itself exercised it's responsibility properly or responsibly. As one commenter asked, who gave Bill Keller the right to unilaterally decide based on 'the public's right to know' when it was appropriate to disclose national secrets?

UPDATE: Bill Keller responds. It is a two page letter to readers. Note this particular sentence:
Our decision to publish the story of the Administration's penetration of the international banking system followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me.
Penetration? Unless I missed it, this was done in cooperation with those who run the system. "Penetration" implies clandestine use, hacking if you will. From Dale's description on the podcast yesterday, the US sent queries with justifications to SWIFT who had the option of denying the query if they felt the justification wasn't strong enough. Hardly the stuff of "penetration".

But it was this paragraph which really irritated me:
It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don't know about it.
Note the highlighted line. There's the out. There's the phrase under which Keller justifies disclosure. Note the second line highlighted. The question then is, given the fact that he has no evidence of abuse, why does this rise to the level of something about which the public must know?

His last line is blatant nonsense. They have preempted the role of legislatures who've legally authorized the program and were overseeing it. And in a representative form of government it is they, not the public, which we give the job of doing such things.

This is classic rationalization on the part of Keller and the NY Times. While I agree with those who say this administration has brought much of this on it's own head by its past actions, this time it is the MSM which is wrong.

UPDATE II: Sec. of the Treasury John Snow blasts Bill Keller and the NY Times in a letter to Keller published at NRO. A snippet:
You have defended your decision to compromise this program by asserting that "terror financiers know" our methods for tracking their funds and have already moved to other methods to send money. The fact that your editors believe themselves to be qualified to assess how terrorists are moving money betrays a breathtaking arrogance and a deep misunderstanding of this program and how it works. While terrorists are relying more heavily than before on cumbersome methods to move money, such as cash couriers, we have continued to see them using the formal financial system, which has made this particular program incredibly valuable.

Lastly, justifying this disclosure by citing the "public interest" in knowing information about this program means the paper has given itself free license to expose any covert activity that it happens to learn of - even those that are legally grounded, responsibly administered, independently overseen, and highly effective. Indeed, you have done so here.

What you've seemed to overlook is that it is also a matter of public interest that we use all means available - lawfully and responsibly - to help protect the American people from the deadly threats of terrorists. I am deeply disappointed in the New York Times.
I think it is becoming unanimous: "breathtaking arrogance" best describes what drove the Times decision making process, followed closely by a "deep misunderstanding" of how it all works, not to mention a misunderstanding of the impact of such a disclosure on national security. But then, it seems we see more and more arrogance and misunderstanding about many things within the NY Times and other media bastions every day.
 
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Comments
"The possiblility of abuse" is a bad argument. It’s the sort of argument that the nanny state makes all the time. Put this way, "Women have the equipment to be prostitutes..." should we treat them ALL this way or wait until someone actually USES the equipment for prostitution? Or guns, "Guns kill people" should we then treat all gun-owners as potential murderers?

The answer is "no" and the answer in this case was, "No abuse." Ergo why talk about it? Hugh Hewitt, Glenn Reynolds, C. Ford (here) all discuss the arrogance of the NYT. The 1st Amendment is NOT a magic wand placing Bill Keller and his staff ABOVE the law and the Constitution. And the NYT is certainly NOT endowed by the Constitution with "Super-Special Powers of Good", and the editorial staff needs to recognize this.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
McQ,
I’m noticing an interesting twist in this story.

This NYT story could be interpreted as a Pro-Bush story. It paints W as a hard-nosed hunter of terrorists, and states over and over, that no abuse of the program has occurred.

I wonder if Keller didn’t run with this latest "leak" because he thought it’s positive accruel to Bush would insulate it from extensive administration scrutiny.

Joe asks: "Ergo, why talk about it?" I hope this stays in the news for a while. Every mention of the story only reinforces Bush’s terror-fighting creds, and begs the question, what would the Dem’s do?!
-Steve
 
Written By: steve
URL: http://
Albeit the NYT / Keller have shown an arrogance, and a total misrepresentation of the meaning "FREEDOM OF THE PRESS", the root cause of all this is being ignored.

Leaks, leaks, leaks. Without the information, there is nothing to publish. Better to focus on the SOURCE of the information, and put the finger in the dike, so to speak.

Squealing and complaining about an arrogant egomaniac who will only do what he did again - is simply barking up the wrong tree.
 
Written By: Pete65
URL: http://
I think Pete65 is right... though I am praying that a few NYT reporters serve some time for refusing to divulge sources.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
... the root cause of all this is being ignored.

Leaks, leaks, leaks. Without the information, there is nothing to publish. Better to focus on the SOURCE of the information, and put the finger in the dike, so to speak.
I tend to agree with this sentiment. No matter what responsibility the NYT might have, the fact remains that the leakers are the ones who are undermining such anti-terror programs.

With respect to whether or not there has been an abuse of the freedom of the press, I’m not really sure how that could happen. I would agree that the NYT and the LAT have shown themselves to bad citizens, but the freedom of the press and the freedom of speach (which are different how?), especially when printing/speaking the truth, are nigh on absolute.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://
It really pains me to say this, but I have to side with the conservative bloggers and Bush admin on this one.

Ick.

My bit of liberal, anti-Bush spin on this is that the papers’ thinking was probably informed by previous examples of the Bush administration’s rather cavalier attitude towards legality and limits on executive power. Had the administration shown a rigorous respect for process and legality in areas such as detainee policy and the whole NSA brouhaha, the Times might have done things differently.
 
Written By: Geek, Esq.
URL: http://
This NYT story could be interpreted as a Pro-Bush story. It paints W as a hard-nosed hunter of terrorists, and states over and over, that no abuse of the program has occurred
Indeed, Bush- his approval ratings already back into the low 40s - can probably expect another bump, and the GOP along with it as WOT/Iraq (and the Dems absolute cluelessness on both) come to the fore.

But poll numbers are meaningless compared to the REAL impact of this story. But I’ll take it as minor victory that this article will lead to the (re)election of those who will try to catch terrorists, as opposed to those will try to aid them
 
Written By: shark
URL: http://
My bit of liberal, anti-Bush spin on this is that the papers’ thinking was probably informed by previous examples of the Bush administration’s rather cavalier attitude towards legality and limits on executive power. Had the administration shown a rigorous respect for process and legality in areas such as detainee policy and the whole NSA brouhaha, the Times might have done things differently.

If she hadn’t been dressed like that and been out at that time of night she wouldn’t have been raped....
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
One wonders-just kidding-how the NYT would react to the government compiling a huge, intrusive, potentially abusive data base of gun owners. After all, we’re dealing with innocent American citizens protected by a legal Second Amendment.
 
Written By: tom scott
URL: http://
I think the public right to know who leaked this to the Times. I think such a disclosure would be in the public interest.
 
Written By: Bill
URL: http://
Why the witch hunt for the leaker of Valerie Plame who was a desk jockey at Langley, and no concern on the part of MSM about leaking classified documents about an ongoing program?

The LAT and NYT have succumbed to the final stages of Bush Dementia Syndrome, where the victim will risk people’s lives and the national interest in order to try to make the President look bad.

Somebody really should tell them that he won’t be running again in 2008.
 
Written By: Peter Porcupine
URL: http://capecodporcupine.blogspot.com
Just for the record, the Wall Street Journal published the same story at the same time. Please include them in any future diatribes regarding this issue.
 
Written By: cllam
URL: http://
One wonders-just kidding-how the NYT would react to the government compiling a huge, intrusive, potentially abusive data base of gun owners. After all, we’re dealing with innocent American citizens protected by a legal Second Amendment.

I’d say that the NYT would think it a CAPITAL idea! Gun-owners are dangerous...and usually Republicans and a disproportionate number of them are Christians. In short, JUST the sort of folks who pose a clear and present danger to the United States, think of them as the Taliban of the US and unlike the Taliban of Afghanistan, they are HERE and they can vote, HERE! OBVIOUSLY we’d want to watch these folks VERY closely.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
As there is the possibility of abuse of the 2nd amendment, and given the public’s right to know, the New York Times and the Los Angles Times should reveal their sources of the disclosure so that the reasons for such a disruption of a seemingly legal program designed to protect the public can be determined in the full light of the day.

Their reasons reported to date for disrupting the otherwise legal program seem to be disingenuous and clearly offer the possibility of abuse of the 2nd amendment, while in pursuit of corporate profits for their news companies. While it has not been clearly shown that either Times company are, in fact, really greedy bastards that put their profits ahead of the safety of the community, that possibility does exist.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Just for the record, the Wall Street Journal published the same story at the same time. Please include them in any future diatribes regarding this issue.
Not quite equivalent.
Based on my reading of the relevant articles, the responsible parties here are only the New York Times and the L.A. Times. The Wall Street Journal simply printed a story using on-the-record interviews with named government officials who knew the East and West Coast Timeses were going to print the story anyway.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
I don’t understand the NYT/LAT story. OK, if the government monitors international money transfers between 2 foreign countries(let us say, between the UK and Netherlands)...Why is it our problem ? Did the newspapers publish any evidence that money transfer to/from the US were being monitored ?

 
Written By: Ivan
URL: http://
The WSJ is one of the most liberal MSM outlets in the nation. People confuse the totally separate staff of the op-ed page (conservative) with the rest of the paper which is decidely left-wing. In a recent study of MSM bias, the WSJ came out farthest to the left.

Any conservative who wants to lump the WSJ with the NY and LA Times in a diatribe would certainly not be shooting at a member of his own team.
 
Written By: stan
URL: http://
I wonder what the NYT’s attitude will be when the top-secret leaks come out of a Democratic administration.

Not biased, just on the other side, and now bragging about it. Find the leakers — starting by imprisoning reporters until they leak — and prosecute them. No more playing around like Sandy Burgler got. Joe Sixpack would be doing ten or twenty years for such a leak, so should these folk.
 
Written By: htom
URL: http://
The public’s right to know - about a wire funds transfer system they had all never heard of in the first place.
and almost certainly didn’t use.
This is like claiming you need to know that your Nextel provider leases gear and maint service from Verizon before you can make a phone call.

Most people initiating a transfer don’t get to make the choice of the service provider, the bank does. So the terrorists will have to change banks to avoid the service, or specify that they don’t want it to go across SWIFT.

They could go through third party routing but the more complicated you make a transfer, the more it’s likely to catch someone’s eye if you have some unusual routing scheme.

One good thing about ’bugging’ SWIFT, there’s not a whole lot of other international funds transfer providers.
One wonders if they’re aren’t bugging the others as well.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
looker,

The public needs to know anything that might undermine the Bush administration.
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
stan,

I posted a link to the study of media biases on this blog. Here it is again:

http://www.polisci.ucla.edu/faculty/groseclose/Media.Bias.8.htm
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
I read on the other thread about how intrusive this is (SWIFT monitoring)! (alarm alarm alarm! 1984, Big Brother oh oh!)
Oh? More intrusive than, say....

Bank Secrecy Act - BSA

Aids in detecting illegal activity by tracking certain monetary transactions, including currency transactions over $10,000, beneficiaries and originators of funds transfers over $3,000, and sales of monetary equivalents (money orders, cashier’s checks, traveler’s checks) between $3,000 and $10,000.

Which was instituted in 1970, and is domestic monitoring.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://

Just for the record, the Wall Street Journal published the same story at the same time. Please include them in any future diatribes regarding this issue.
Not quite equivalent.
Based on my reading of the relevant articles, the responsible parties here are only the New York Times and the L.A. Times. The Wall Street Journal simply printed a story using on-the-record interviews with named government officials who knew the East and West Coast Timeses were going to print the story anyway.
Wrong.
Doyle McManus, the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said his paper had a story ready to go several days ago and was still having internal discussions over whether to publish it when The New York Times posted its own story on the Web Thursday evening.

At that point, he said, "the issue of withholding our story was largely moot."
Not that the truth matters to the Pattericos of the world, but the LA Times ran the story only after the NYT posted its story on the web. Indeed, McManus said that he was literally meeting with the Feds when they got the word about the NYT’s decision. According to McManus, one of the lawyers in the room got a message on his Blackberry about the NYT’s post. The meeting ended immediately.
Is this prosecutable? I don’t know. But as Barone points out, this was deliberately done even over the objections of the government. The story revealed a significant legal, secret program used in the War on Terror which may now no longer have any further use. To me that is irresponsible conduct on the part of the LA and NY Times.
Is it prosecutable? Are you nuts? Since when can you prosecute newspaper A for reporting on classified information when newspaper B has already let the genie out of the bottle? And if you can, shouldn’t you go after blogs that do the same thing?

Just a thought.
 
Written By: mkultra
URL: http://
Does anybody here who’s opining on this know what SWIFT is?

 
Written By: Mysterious Traveler
URL: http://
Wrong.
MK, YOU’RE wrong, as usual. The LAT spoke with "more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials...on condition of anonymity, citing its sensitive nature" and reported that classified information. The WSJ only reported on information from "on-the-record interviews with named government officials."
Not that the truth matters to the Pattericos of the world
Er...you meant to write that knowledge of the facts never matters to the MKs of the world.
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
Not that the truth matters to the Pattericos of the world, but the LA Times ran the story only after the NYT posted its story on the web.
You are (even more) dense (than usual)? Patterico was arguing that the WSJ didn’t initiate the story, but went with it after it was determined that other papers were already doing so. If the LATimes didn’t print it first either, fine, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the WSJ.
Is it prosecutable? Are you nuts? Since when can you prosecute newspaper A for reporting on classified information when newspaper B has already let the genie out of the bottle?
I have no idea what the relevant federal law is in this case, but they certainly have a case against whatever federal employee initiated the leak, and if they have to subpeona a journalist to find out who is leaking classified information, I’m not sure that’s wrong.

For what it’s worth, I find the notion of a ’journalist shield law’ somewhat nonsensical when a crime has been committed. No profession has confidentiality immunity that shields them from participating in or observing a crime. (yes, IF a crime has been committed, I’d say the same thing about the Plame case)
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Yep - I’ve worked with Wire transfer for about 15 years (off and on) over the last 25.
Haven’t worked a lot on SWIFT though (the code was messy, so I like that just fine), and then only on mapping SWIFT tags to internal formats (4 years ago), and even then only the new tags the code didn’t already handle!
So, I know enough about ’old’ SWIFT to be programmatically dangerous.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
mkultra wrote: Wrong.
Do ya read the postings before you reply? NYT, LAT, WSJ are not all the same (although I classify them all as left wing rags—’cept the WSJ Opinions).
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
Just for the record, the Wall Street Journal published the same story at the same time. Please include them in any future diatribes regarding this issue.
Not quite equivalent.

Based on my reading of the relevant articles, the responsible parties here are only the New York Times and the L.A. Times. The Wall Street Journal simply printed a story using on-the-record interviews with named government officials who knew the East and West Coast Timeses were going to print the story anyway.
A distinction without a practical difference. Any paper that runs a front page story at the same time as others, regardless of sourcing, can be considered to be "breaking the story"
 
Written By: cllam
URL: http://
I think it is becoming unanimous: "breathtaking arrogance" best describes what drove the Times decision making process, followed closely by a "deep misunderstanding" of how it all works, not to mention a misunderstanding of the impact of such a disclosure on national security
Yeah, their rush to fight the Administration had nothing at all to do with it, right, sure. M’kay.

Anyway, I have a challenge to the MKs of the world who don’t mind the Times blowing the program: when the next terror attack hits, I don’t want to hear a fracking peep out of them about the Bush failure to connect the dots. Can they do that? They have lost the right to complain later.
 
Written By: shark
URL: http://
A distinction without a practical difference. Any paper that runs a front page story at the same time as others, regardless of sourcing, can be considered to be "breaking the story"
What secret information did the WSJ supply that was not on the public record?
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
MK, YOU’RE wrong, as usual. The LAT spoke with "more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials...on condition of anonymity, citing its sensitive nature" and reported that classified information. The WSJ only reported on information from "on-the-record interviews with named government officials."
The issue is who tipped off the enemy. The NYT did, unless the LA Times publihsed simultaneously, which I showed they didn’t.

So what if the LA Times spoke with officials about classified information? The issue is who revealed it first.

Do I really have to explain this?
You are (even more) dense (than usual)? Patterico was arguing that the WSJ didn’t initiate the story, but went with it after it was determined that other papers were already doing so. If the LATimes didn’t print it first either, fine, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the WSJ.
The part you quoted said the NYTand the La Times were in the same boat. You quoted this language, not me. To then turn around and say the only point was about the WSJ is ridiculous. Just flatly ridiculous. Here is the da** quote:
Based on my reading of the relevant articles, the responsible parties here are only the New York Times and the L.A. Times
He equates the NYT and the LA Times on this issue. You quote what he says. I point out it is wrong. Your non-response was the Patterico was also talking about the WSJ.

So what?

In the end what this issue comes down to is whether the government should have the power to prohibit the press from publishing information. That is the essence of the debate. McQ qould have us believe that revealing that we are basically in the midst of World War II and that revealing any government activity the Bush administration does not want revealed is akin to revealing that we had broken the Germans’ enigma code.

To simply attempt to explain McQ’s position is to demostrate how far he has gone off the deep end into the loving arms of an omniscient government. After all, since the Muslim religion will never end, there will always be fodder for the right to argue that War on Terror will never end. And if the War can never end, the government must always be right.

It’s strange, but once every few weeks I recall that this blog styles itself as having a libertarian streak. It’s a passing moment at best.

 
Written By: mkultra
URL: http://
In the end what this issue comes down to is whether the government should have the power to prohibit the press from publishing information.
I believe it comes down to a bit more involved question. Something more like "should the press publish when the motives of the leaker are unknown and the gov’t has asked (not ordered) that the story not be published and shows good cause to this end. If the story is published should the gov’t be able to force the press to reveal the source?"
 
Written By: DCB
URL: http://
The press should be held to the same standard that I am as an individual. I’m allowed to speak my mind freely. I am not allowed to yell fire in a theater just because I can.
 
Written By: Wilky
URL: http://

 
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