- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

News judgment is a famously subjective thing, but there’s nothing subjective about the way the New York Times treated last week’s troubling news on the “Swift” financial surveillance program. The NYT is downplaying the negative consequences of a very poor editorial decision last year to expose a useful counterterrorism program that had harmed no one and had been subject to no abuses. It owns this story, and shouldn’t be allowed to run away unnoticed.

The news is that U.S. authorities will soon lose the cooperation of the European Central Bank on “Swift” financial-data transfers after regulators ordered the bank to start disengaging in April. “Swift” helps U.S. intelligence sift through vast amounts of financial information for counterterrorism purposes in what by all accounts has been a successful and useful (and previously secret) endeavor. But European regulators now find that it violates European Union law, and so the European Central Bank’s cooperation must end. If and when other European entities follow suit, the “Swift” program could be crippled.

Huge news, no? You couldn’t tell it from the NYT coverage. It buried the story in a 200-word Agence France-Presse wire story on Page A8 on Friday, in sharp contrast to its marathon of splashy A1 stories exposing the program.

It’s not hard to see why. The NYT set this chain of events in motion with its exposes by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. Now that a European backlash is underway against a heretofore useful government program, the NYT doesn’t want to advertise its role in bringing all this about.

At least the newspaper seems ambiguous about its own role. Executive Editor Bill Keller’s final public words on the subject were a fierce defense of the coverage, but Public Editor Byron Calame has since recanted his initial defense. After arguing in July that NYT editors “correctly decided to make sure their readers were informed about the banking-data surveillance,” Mr. Calame wrote in October that he was wrong to defend the coverage. “[T]he apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused” are the reasons it was wrong to publish. Of course, this too was buried — at the bottom of a Public Editor column drearily titled “Can ‘Magazines’ of The Times Subsidize News Coverage?”

Make no mistake about it, the NYT owns this story and should get the lion’s share of blame if “Swift” unravels.

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