Taking Issue With NYT, LAT And WSJ On Banking Surveillance Articles
But in the present War on Terror, with, I believe. stakes that are just as high, perhaps higher with a serious prospect of nuclear, chemical or biological attacks against the U.S. and other Western countries, the press has come dangerously close to undermining the war effort.
In L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet's explanation this morning of the newspaper's decision to follow the New York Times, and publish last Friday an article about the U.S. Treasury Department's program to secretly monitor worldwide money transfers in order to track terrorist financing, he remarks, "We are not out to get the president."
But this strikes me as rather disingenuous. It has been very clear reading the NYT and LAT these past months that there is an undercurrent of antipathy to President Bush and his Administration, in not only the editorial pages but the news sections as well. This underlies repeated decisions by the editors to publish information which, frankly, may be deleterious to the war effort.
Yes, I realize there are important civil liberties issues here. I tended to support, for instance, publication of information about federal surveillance of domestic telephone calls, because that did appear to have a direct effort on routine communications, despite assurances that it was mainly aimed at communications from abroad.
But I think that with the banking article, the newspapers may have crossed a line. This had less of a direct effect on ordinary American citizens, and publication of the reports threatened, as the Administration said, cooperation from skittish Europeans in preventing possibly fearsome attacks.
These are, as both Baquet and NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller have said, difficult decisions, and I'm not saying either editor willy-nelly is out to subvert the war effort. But that may have been the effect of their decisions.
The president yesterday sharply assailed the publication, saying, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America."
This is the president's judgment and in time of war the newspapers should give some deference to it, in my view.
Baquet in his article this morning makes a strong argument when he writes that the papers "have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That's the role of the press in our democracy."
Yes, but the question here is one of degree. The newspapers and the nation must also recognize that were our enemies to prevail in the war, their freedom to publish could be drastically curtailed. Their freedom, were religious fanatics to take over, could even be lost totally.
Brutality surrounds us in this war. In Iraq, two U.S. soldiers were crudely murdered last week after falling into the hands of the enemy. Four Russian diplomats were also murdered. In Iran, the religious chief of the state just this morning said he doesn't want negotiations with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. In Somalia, Islamist victories have been followed by the order, by the newly designated leader, to stone to death five rapists, rather than simply imprisoning them. The L.A. Times today contains a report on life in Somalia which tells the gruesome story of the murder of a cinema owner by religious thugs in Mogadishu for having the temerity to show the World Cup. In Gaza, the Israeli withdrawal, an attempt to generate a more peaceful relationship with the Palestinians, has been followed by persistent rocket attacks on an Israeli town and other aggressive actions.
There ought to be little doubt that such barbarism will spread unless the war is successfully prosecuted.
That the Administration has an anti-press attitude cannot be denied. Some times, as in the Judith Miller case, and threats now that the New York Times might be prosecuted for publishing various articles, the Administration too has stepped beyond a reasonable position.
But for me the bottom line is that the press, on its side, should go back to its World War II policies and, fundamentally, side with the war effort.
That may not be a popular position with many readers of this blog. But I'm going to stand by it.