- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Well, well. New York Times ombudsman Byron Calame now thinks his newspaper’s exposure of the U.S. government’s “Swift” terrorist-financing surveillance program was wrong. Mr. Calame’s mea culpa Sunday concluded that publishing details about the program was unjustified, and that his own defense of the move was “off base.” We appreciate the honesty, but it’s water under the bridge four months after it happened. The best thing now is for news professionals everywhere to take the lesson: Sometimes the public has a right not to know. Show some responsibility when it comes to secret government activities.

The Times never adequately defended its exposure of the program. It couldn’t, at least not by the accepted rules of the industry, because the program broke no law and has not been linked to any abuse of private data. There are multiple forms of oversight. This program was the very model of effective government in defense of American citizens. And, as it happens, it depended on secrecy.

Why didn’t the Times understand this? The only conceivable explanation involves the media’s post-Watergate prejudice against government secrecy even its legitimate forms, its anti-Bush animus, sensationalism or, likeliest of all, some combination of the above.

It’s simply not responsible for a newspaper to arrogate such decisions to itself short of a highly compelling legal or moral justification. As this newspaper knows very well, the decision whether to publish or not to can be quite difficult in cases involving national security. But if no illegality or immoral action has taken place, and there is a very high risk of genuinely endangering national security, the decision must be against publication. In the American system of government these decisions are made by elected officials and their subordinates on behalf of the public. We know the Times editors think they decide what’s news and what’s not. In this case, they don’t. The public understands that sometimes a secret must remain a secret — witnessed by the lack of outcry once the program was exposed.

While we’re at it, a word about Mr. Calame’s supposed “vicious attacks” on the Times by the Bush administration, which he says spurred his initial reaction. Where are they? These vicious attacks are not in the public record. We recall the White House press briefing the day the story broke — in which the media comes off poorly, not the Bush administration. Helen Thomas would barely let White House spokesman Tony Snow get a word in. “Helen, will you stop heckling and let me conduct a press conference?” the good-natured Mr. Snow was forced to say, only half jokingly, at one point. Meanwhile, the New York Times played the victim in public statements which displayed little except its arrogance.

Sometimes the media simply needs to let government do its job as the law and common sense require. In this case, the opposite happened.

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