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Revelation risks …
Why do they hate us? No, I’m not talking about Islamofascist terrorists. We know why they hate us: because we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, because we refuse to treat women as second-class citizens, because we do not kill homosexuals, because we are a free society.
No, the “they” I’m referring to are the editors of the New York Times. And do they hate us? Well, that may be stretching it. But at the least they have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety.
Last December, the Times ran a story revealing that the National Security Agency was conducting electronic surveillance of calls from suspected al Qaeda terrorists overseas to persons in the United States. This was allegedly a violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. But in fact the president has, under his war powers, the right to order surveillance of our enemies abroad. And it makes no sense to hang up when those enemies call someone in the United States — rather the contrary. If the government is going to protect us from those who wish to do us grievous harm — and after September 11 no one can doubt there are many such persons — then it should try to track them down as thoroughly as possible.
Little wonder that President Bush called in Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and top editor Bill Keller, and asked them not to run the story. But the Times went ahead and published it anyway. Now, thanks to the New York Times, al Qaeda terrorists are aware that their phone calls can be monitored, and presumably have taken precautions.
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 Qaeda 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.”
This was presumably the view as well of the “nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives” who were apparently the sources for the story.
But who elected them to make these decisions? Publication of the Times’ December and June stories appears to violate provisions of the broadly written, but until recently, seldom enforced provisions of the Espionage Act. Commentary’s Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued that the Times can and probably should be prosecuted.
The counterargument is that it is a dangerous business for the government to prosecute the press. But it certainly is in order to prosecute government officials who have abused their trust by disclosing secrets, especially when those disclosures have reduced the government’s ability to keep us safe. And pursuit of those charges would probably require reporters to disclose the names of those sources. As the Times found out in the Judith Miller case, reporters who refuse to answer such questions can go to jail.
Why do they hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack? They say that these surveillance programs are subject to abuse, but give no reason to believe that this concern is anything but theoretical. We have a press that is at war with an administration, while our country is at war against merciless enemies. The Times is acting like an adolescent kicking the shins of its parents, hoping to make them hurt while confident of remaining safe under their roof. But how safe will we remain when our protection depends on the Times?
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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