- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A conscientious newspaper editor should never enter a popularity contest, and must keep in mind that a lot of people would string him up to the nearest hanging tree if they thought they could get by with it. It goes with the territory.

Rep. Peter King, a Republican of New York, apparently wants to string up Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, for ordering the publication of a story revealing that the U.S. government has monitored international financial transactions in pursuit of terrorists. “We’re at war,” thundered Mr. King, “and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.” Treasonous? Mr. Keller surely knows what the penalty for treason in wartime is. But he might escape the gallows, if Mr. King prevails, by arguing that Congress forgot to declare war before George W. Bush sent the coalition of the willing into Iraq.

The president, though righteously angry, is more restrained. He loosed a volley of deserved criticism at the New York Times and unnamed other newspapers — known to everybody as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal — that add details to the scoop by the New York Times.

The president thinks what Mr. Keller’s newspaper did was “disgraceful” and reckless. Disgrace may be too strong, but reckless sounds about right. “We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America,” President Bush told reporters yesterday at the White House. “And for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America. What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so. If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror.”

Peter King says the New York Times violated laws against counterespionage. “The New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people. And I’m calling on the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of the New York Times, its reporters, the editors that worked on this, and the publisher.” Mr. King would presumably exclude the printers, the drivers of the trucks who delivered the papers, and maybe even those who read about it in the paper that day. But we can’t be sure. “Arrogant, elitist, left-wing” sounds about right, too, but if being “arrogant, elitist, and left-wing” is a hanging offense, investing in companies that make rope is a good investment.

When hysterics get on a horse, they usually ride off in three directions at once. Cooler heads prevail. “I think it’s premature to call for a prosecution of the New York Times,” Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says. “Just like I think it’s premature to say that the administration is entirely correct.”

The president makes a good case, however, that searches of millions of records of international financial transactions were not only legal, but necessary to find and prosecute terrorists who are dedicated to killing thousands of Americans and destroying the nation if they can. “The people’s right to know,” weighed against another national catastrophe, is not very persuasive. The searches of the records of 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries were not aimed at ordinary Americans, but at suspected or known terrorists — “a sharp harpoon,” in the colorful description of Treasury Secretary John Snow, “aimed at the heart of terrorist activity.”

The justification offered by Mr. Keller and the New York Times, that the “people’s right to know” outweighed the national-security concerns, is not persuasive at all. Better to err on the side of caution, even if you are the New York Times, than put at risk the survival and safety of us all. If Mr. King and the Justice Department want to make someone pay at the end of a rope, they should go after the leakers. Hanging an editor might be more fun, but plugging the leak would do more good.

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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