After Spy Story, the New York Times Defends Its Patriotism

Perhaps sensing that editor Bill Keller’s arrogant open letter didn't do the job, today’s masthead editorial in the New York Times makes another defense of the paper’s latest terrorist-program wrecking scoop, mostly by accusing conservatives of attacking the paper’s patriotism.

The defensive “Patriotism and the Press” begins:

“Over the last year, The New York Times has twice published reports about secret antiterrorism programs being run by the Bush administration. Both times, critics have claimed that the paper was being unpatriotic or even aiding the terrorists.”

The Times argues publishing classified details on terrorist surveillance isn’t sedition:

“The Swift story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals. Terrorist groups would have had to be fairly credulous not to suspect that they would be subject to scrutiny if they moved money around through international wire transfers. In fact, a United Nations group set up to monitor Al Qaeda and the Taliban after Sept. 11 recommended in 2002 that other countries should follow the United States' lead in monitoring suspicious transactions handled by Swift. The report is public and available on the United Nations Web site.”

So the Times defense is that it’s just repeating old news. Then why the front-page play?

“Our news colleagues work under the assumption that they should let the people know anything important that the reporters learn, unless there is some grave and overriding reason for withholding the information.”

Except for Mohammad cartoons, of course.

“They try hard not to base those decisions on political calculations, like whether a story would help or hurt the administration. It is certainly unlikely that anyone who wanted to hurt the Bush administration politically would try to do so by writing about the government's extensive efforts to make it difficult for terrorists to wire large sums of money.”

They have half a good point here – it would not surprise if Bush’s support actually increased after the revelations of what his administration is trying to do to combat terrorist tactics.

The Times can’t seem to locate any actual civil liberties violations or illegalities in the SWIFT program itself, so it just portrays it as “part” of something that causes liberal vapors at editorial roundtables, which is apparently reason enough to put all the details out for anyone, including enemies, to read.

“From our side of the news-opinion wall, the Swift story looks like part of an alarming pattern. Ever since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has taken the necessity of heightened vigilance against terrorism and turned it into a rationale for an extraordinarily powerful executive branch, exempt from the normal checks and balances of our system of government. It has created powerful new tools of surveillance and refused, almost as a matter of principle, to use normal procedures that would acknowledge that either Congress or the courts have an oversight role. The Swift program, like the wiretapping program, has been under way for years with no restrictions except those that the executive branch chooses to impose on itself -- or, in the case of Swift, that the banks themselves are able to demand. This seems to us very much the sort of thing the other branches of government, and the public, should be nervously aware of.”

Exactly what “public interest” is being served by making it that much harder to fight terrorism?

Notice there’s nothing said about concerns over SWIFT itself -- if revealing this program was so important, just what are the specific concerns of the paper? The only specific results from the program appear to be positive ones. As the Times itself reported, terrorists have been tracked and caught because of the SWIFT surveillance. Or perhaps we should say “had been tracked and caught,” given that the Times has likely scuttled the program’s effectiveness.

The editorial concludes with petulance over alleged attacks on the Times’ patriotism.

“The free press has a central place in the Constitution because it can provide information the public needs to make things right again. Even if it runs the risk of being labeled unpatriotic in the process.”

The Times has yet to say what has gone “wrong” regarding this terrorist surveillance program.

For more on this story and other New York Times bias, visit TimesWatch.

War on Terrorism Surveillance New York Times Government & Press
Clay Waters's picture