7/01/2006

Like ML King and Socrates, Keller and Baquet should go gladly to jail

In a joint editorial, Bill Keller and Dean Baquet wrap themselves in the flag, the Constitution, and the funeral shrouds of dead reporters to justify their decisions to publish details of the classified SWIFT program. What they seem unwilling to do is to seriously reconsider those decisions in light of the legitimate criticism they have received. Nor do they believe that they personally should face any consequences when their decisions and judgments are, as in this case, so demonstrably poor. If they truly believe, as they claim to believe, that the First Amendment must be weighed and balanced with the need to keep secrets from America's enemies, and that it is their responsibility to do so, then they should be willing to accept the consequences when an independent judiciary deems their decisions to be wrong. As Martin Luther King and Socrates were, Keller and Baquet should be willing to go to jail.

When Do We Publish a Secret? - New York Times: By DEAN BAQUET, editor, The Los Angeles Times, and BILL KELLER, executive editor, The New York Times
Published: July 1, 2006
SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, newspaper editors have faced excruciating choices in covering the government's efforts to protect the country from terrorist agents. Each of us has, on a number of occasions, withheld information because we were convinced that publishing it could put lives at risk. On other occasions, each of us has decided to publish classified information over strong objections from our government.

Here is the first flaw in their thinking. "Putting lives at risk" is a simplistic standard, too low of a bar, wholly inappropriate to the issue of whether to publish details of a classified program like SWIFT.
Last week our newspapers disclosed a secret Bush administration program to monitor international banking transactions. We did so after appeals from senior administration officials to hold the story. Our reports — like earlier press disclosures of secret measures to combat terrorism — revived an emotional national debate, featuring angry calls of "treason" and proposals that journalists be jailed along with much genuine concern and confusion about the role of the press in times like these.

Omitted here is any mention of the appeals from high-ranking government officials outside the administration, including Democrats. Why wasn't the bi-partisan nature of those appeals considered? Why isn't it mentioned?
We are rivals. Our newspapers compete on a hundred fronts every day. We apply the principles of journalism individually as editors of independent newspapers. We agree, however, on some basics about the immense responsibility the press has been given by the inventors of the country.

Responsibility, for most of us, comes with consequences for failure. "The inventors of our country" also gave Congress the power to legislate consequences. In this case, the legislated consequences for disclosing or publishing national security information is 10 years in jail. Keller and Baquet aren't willing to acknowledge that any consequences should apply to them.
Government officials, understandably, want it both ways. They want us to protect their secrets, and they want us to trumpet their successes. A few days ago, Treasury Secretary John Snow said he was scandalized by our decision to report on the bank-monitoring program. But in September 2003 the same Secretary Snow invited a group of reporters from our papers, The Wall Street Journal and others to travel with him and his aides on a military aircraft for a six-day tour to show off the department's efforts to track terrorist financing. The secretary's team discussed many sensitive details of their monitoring efforts, hoping they would appear in print and demonstrate the administration's relentlessness against the terrorist threat.
How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?

It is, of course, Keller and Baquet who want it both ways. They want to make the decision without facing any personal consequences, even when the decision is based on competitive pressure, political animosity toward the administration, or just plain poor judgment by not-so-bright editors, rather than the lofty values with which Keller and Baquet justify themselves. If they truly believe what they're saying, they should welcome prosecution, and accept the judgment of the courts.

6/30/2006

Columbia Journalism Review comes up intellectually short.

This bit of shoddy analysis from Paul McLeary of the Columbia Journalism Review. McLeary reasons that it's okay to leak explicit details of a classified counter-terrorism program if (1) you've previously leaked broad outlines of the program, and (2) the administration didn't make a big deal of the first leak.

Of course, for the administration, making a big deal of the first leak would have been stupid. It would have only raised the profile of the story further. Remember that this was the same point Bill Keller tried to make (inappropriately, in that case, since the profile couldn't have been raised higher) against his critics in his apologia for publishing the explicit details.

The first MATTY WALKER AWARD goes to McLeary for not-very-smart-are-you? partisan cynicism masquerading as actual thinking.

CJR Daily: New York Times Scoops Itself - In 2004: "And in the back and forth over whether or not the Times should be brought up on charges, it's worthwhile to point out that the Times' Eric Lichtblau offered an intriguing sneak peak at a similar program back in December, 2004, in an article about a new Department of Homeland Security program that would scour financial transactions: 'The Department of Homeland Security has begun experimenting with a wide-ranging computer database that allows investigators to match financial transactions against a list of some 250,000 people and firms with suspected ties to terrorist financing, drug trafficking, money laundering and other financial crimes.'

Lichtblau also hinted -- broadly -- about a year and a half before the government confirmed it that monitoring financial transactions helped catch Hambali. 'In early 2002, for instance, World-Check added to its high-risk list a terror suspect in Southeast Asia who went by the name of Hambali. Months later, the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control added Hambali to its own list of 'banned' foreigners. Hambali, captured in Thailand last year, is in American custody and is accused of organizing two deadly nightclub attacks in Bali in October 2002.'

Lichtblau wrote that the program, which was still being tested, 'gives investigators what amounts to an enormous global watch list to track possible financial crimes at American border crossings, banks and other financial institutions.'
Sounds familiar, yet we don't recall any big deal being made of it then. So why now?

Could it be because Lichtblau's 2004 piece came immediately after the presidential election, whereas his 2006 piece that has kicked up such a furor comes right in the middle of fevered campaigning for the mid-term elections -- campaigning which features plenty of Republican incumbents said to be running scared and looking for an issue, any issue, to divert attention from Iraq and the president's wobbly approval ratings?
Naw. Must be something else.