Keller’s Response Is Insufficient

By
June 25, 2006

New York Times Editor Bill Keller crafted a letter for distribution as a response to recent criticisms over publishing information the government requested they withhold. The full text is below the fold.

The letter is three parts fodder and one part substance and could be characterized more as a dodge, than a genuine response.

It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far.

That’s disingenuous, at best, as headlines in the Times purport to judge legality versus illegality everyday. And it’s worth noting that CBS alleged it had experts suggesting that its National Guard memo’s were legit, when they clearly weren’t. Everything I have heard or read about this program suggests it is obviously not illegal. Given that one can find an expert to say just about anything on any side of an argument today, this is no excuse for the Times irresponsible behavior.

A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.

It is not the citizen’s or the presses right or responsibility to review every program or battle plan during a time of war. The rationale Keller weakly puts forth would make the argument for nothing to ever be marked Top Secret. Keller’s position does not hold up to scrutiny.

We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We don’t know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling. First, the bankers provide this information under the authority of a subpoena, which imposes a legal obligation. Second, if, as the Administration says, the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it. The Bush Administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere. And while it is too early to tell, the initial signs are that our article is not generating a banker backlash against the program.

Keller is simply spinning the issues to his liking. The core issue is and has always been tipping off terrorists to a program which even the Times is forced to admit works, and is  legal.

A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported — indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department — that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.

Yes, those TQM terrorists, they are dedicated to efficiency. By suggesting that the administration made the argument half-heartedly, Keller is simply setting the stage to claim that they were played. That would mean the administration didn’t argue against it, but waited until after publication to object.

Frankly, given the reputation of the New york Times these days, I find them a less credible source for defining the subtleties behind any discussion, than I do the administration.

Clearly Keller is feeling the heat, as he and the NY Times should. Personally, I would advocate for a prosecution, or at the very least, a Congressional hearing. Something has to be done to start reigning in our irresponsible media during a period of difficult and protracted war.

Hopefully, as it requires registration, the NY Times won’t mind my editorial decision to share the complete letter below the fold. It’s all about your right to know, you understand.

Update: Mark in Mexico has a good slice of comments from different bloggers.

The following is a letter Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, has sent to readers who have written him about The Times’s publication of information about the government’s examination of international banking records:

I don’t always have time to answer my mail as fully as etiquette demands, but our story about the government’s surveillance of international banking records has generated some questions and concerns that I take very seriously. As the editor responsible for the difficult decision to publish that story, I’d like to offer a personal response.

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.) Some comes from readers who have considered the story in question and wonder whether publishing such material is wise. And some comes from readers who are grateful for the information and think it is valuable to have a public debate about the lengths to which our government has gone in combatting the threat of terror.

It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.

The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly. The responsibility of it weighs most heavily on us when an issue involves national security, and especially national security in times of war. I’ve only participated in a few such cases, but they are among the most agonizing decisions I’ve faced as an editor.

The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest. For example, some members of the Administration have argued over the past three years that when our reporters describe sectarian violence and insurgency in Iraq, we risk demoralizing the nation and giving comfort to the enemy. Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials. Our default position — our job — is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not "why publish?" but "why would we withhold information of significance?" We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.

Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but it’s the kind of elementary context that sometimes gets lost in the heat of strong disagreements.

Since September 11, 2001, our government has launched broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing the Congress. Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government’s actions and over the adequacy of oversight. We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them.

Our decision to publish the story of the Administration’s penetration of the international banking system followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me. We listened patiently and attentively. We discussed the matter extensively within the paper. We spoke to others — national security experts not serving in the Administration — for their counsel. It’s worth mentioning that the reporters and editors responsible for this story live in two places — New York and the Washington area — that are tragically established targets for terrorist violence. The question of preventing terror is not abstract to us.

The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that the program is good — that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.

It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.

We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We don’t know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling. First, the bankers provide this information under the authority of a subpoena, which imposes a legal obligation. Second, if, as the Administration says, the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it. The Bush Administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere. And while it is too early to tell, the initial signs are that our article is not generating a banker backlash against the program.

By the way, we heard similar arguments against publishing last year’s reporting on the NSA eavesdropping program. We were told then that our article would mean the death of that program. We were told that telecommunications companies would — if the public knew what they were doing — withdraw their cooperation. To the best of my knowledge, that has not happened. While our coverage has led to much public debate and new congressional oversight, to the best of our knowledge the eavesdropping program continues to operate much as it did before. Members of Congress have proposed to amend the law to put the eavesdropping program on a firm legal footing. And the man who presided over it and defended it was handily confirmed for promotion as the head of the CIA.

A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported — indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department — that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.

I can appreciate that other conscientious people could have gone through the process I’ve outlined above and come to a different conclusion. But nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues.

Thanks for writing.

Regards,
Bill Keller



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Comments:
  1. New York Times editor Bill Keller’s letter

    I have not read the letter in its entirety. I read only four (4) sentences.

  2. Tano says:

    I think your response is incredibly weak, and Keller’s letter is right on the mark. Thank God, and Madison, for a free press, even if we have to put up with the likes of y’all.

  3. Good Lt says:

    “I think your response is incredibly weak, and Keller’s letter is right on the mark.”
    Of course, you won’t explain why.
    I guess, by Tano’s logic, that Valerie Plame’s name and identity was fair game for widespread publication. Judging by the reaction from those in Tano’s camp, there is no justification for printing a secret or a classified fact, especially when it reveals slimy left-wing politicos for what they are. Right? After all, there are no state secrets that can be held back from publication by virtue of their security classification. And we know by the left-wing carping over “national security” being compromised by revealing Plame’s non-covert identity that some are more acceptable to liberals than others. Leaking real national security secrets to the world and to the nation’s enemies? Prefectly acceptable. Dispelling a lie and outing a fraud trying to perpetuate a demonstrable lie to the American public? Not acceptable, since were speaking “truth to power.”
    Unless, of course, that disclosure causes left wing conniptions (all the rave these days) over “press freedoms.” The First Amendment is not carte blanche to do or say anything. You do not have the right to libel or slander. You do not have the right to incite violence with your speech. You do not have the right to print state secrets on the front pages of your newspaper. Sorry – the Constitution is not a suicide pact (that’s Lincoln, in case you are wondering).
    Laughably inconsistency here from the left. Some leaks are great, some are terrible. Apparently, legal, effective and covert counter-terrorism programs are dubious and need to be destroyed, because the “public interest” demands it. Heh. What a load. That’s what Bill Keller thinks, at least. It’s all there in his response.
    As such, Keller’s response is incomplete, insufficient and irrelevant. This, mind you, is all coming from the same editorial staff and management who wrought Harold Raines and Jayson Blair on the public.
    Forgive me if I don’t fall dutifully in line with the NYT.

  4. Bill Keller’s Letter To The Worried

    Because I do not advocate prosecuting the New York Times, I do expect newspapers to be highly responsible about what they publish: I grant them a lot of power, but this also means that they should be extremely responsible in what they do and don’t cover.

  5. WHY THEY BLABBED

    Patterico posts a valuable transcript of a radio interview conducted by LA Times columnist Patt Morrison with Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus about their blabbermouth article on the once-secret terrorist finance tracking program. Key portio…

  6. Terry Gain says:

    The public has a right to know whether the NYT broke the law. And the only way to we can know for sure is if the NYT is prosecuted.

  7. syn says:

    The NY Times Corporate-controlled un-elected ‘truth’sayers deciding what is in the best interest of the unwashed masses?
    Tano, sounds like Big Brother to me yet so odd you would be so supportive of such fascist totalitarian control. Tano, why would you give the NY Times more power over the people than un-elected ‘truth’sayers deserve?

  8. Son Of The Godfather says:

    Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information . . . concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States . . . shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both

  9. TJM says:

    The NYT along with the LAT and the WSJ,published a story based on information provided to them by people involved in implementing the program.The sources believed they had a responsibility (however clouded that judgment was by partisan or bureaucratic interests) to make this information known. The journalists as well as the editors discussed the publication of this story with the government (no time line is in the story so it’s not known whether the informants did this last week or last year) and concluded that publication was warranted.
    Did the government officials involved in these discussions raise the issue of a national security breach being illegal? The officials did raise the issues outlined in the apologia but the NYT deemed those arguments ineffectual. To conclude that they forgot or omitted the national security prosecution threat is absurd. If that threat had credibility, prior to publication,the government would have sought an injunction or,upon publication,that same government would have sought an indictment.I doubt the government would need an exhortation by Riehl or others to file such an action.

  10. The NY Times Responds

    New York Times Editor Bill Keller responded to the tons of email and letters of anger that were sent to them over revealing National Security issues.
    A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorist…

  11. George Sexton says:

    I would agree with prosecuting the NYT only as far as it would take to find the leakers.
    Life without parole would be a good start. And that only as a result of a plea bargain that would lead to other leakers of classified info.
    It is not incumbant upon the media to determine the classified nature of information it receives. It IS in cumbant upon our government to find and crucify the cleared leakers.
    Nobody reasonably expects the MSM to act in a responsible or patriotic manner while in the possession of classified material which can bolster sales or discredit America.
    This private agenda against the administration, without regard to the well being of America, has to be crushed. Too many good men and women have their backsides hanging out in the breeze because of this behaviour. It is criminal, treasonous and wrong.

  12. Bill Keller is offering disingenuous pap that I would not accept from one of my teenagers.
    His rebuttal of the argument that terrorists could use the information was “But that argument was made in a half-hearted way.” It’s the lame rationalization offered by someone who knows perfectly well that they’ve stepped over the line. I can just hear my 14-year-old whining, “I didn’t think you really meant it…” It’s on the order of “I forgot.” Children do this. Adults shouldn’t.
    Worse was his discussion of how the press and the government line up on opposite sides:
    “The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest. For example, some members of the Administration have argued over the past three years that when our reporters describe sectarian violence and insurgency in Iraq, we risk demoralizing the nation and giving comfort to the enemy.”
    It’s not even an honest characterization of the argument. The government has NEVER, under any circumstances or at any time in US history, said they want the press to publish only the official line. And the objection to NYT’s reporting was never, EVER, that they reported sectarian violence and insurgency; it was that they ONLY published that, omitting all other factors, in a blatant attempt to turn public opinion by selective reporting of the facts. It’s a distinction adults should be able to see, but offended teens cannot.
    It’s hardly a surprise that a New York Times editor offers rationalizations we might expect from an undisciplined child. It’s a symptom of that dismaying characteristic of the Boomer generation, adult bodies housing unresolved teenage angst and rebellion. We’re watching rage at ineffective parents being acted out as rage against constraining morals, responsible government, and a free people. Bill Keller is a whiny child in an adult’s body, but this time, his immature tantrum could hurt real people very badly. It’s time we administer discipline.

  13. MikeInAppalachia says:

    “After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco.”
    First of all, the above seems to be saying that the “Swift” Program is akin to the Bay of Pigs invasion or at least some kind of action with the potential to become a “fiasco”. That appears to be a pretty big stretch with little basis in logic or reality. Especially given the admission by Keller that it is legal or at a minimum, not illegal. What point in his defense was being made? Also, I cannot find any reference for the “reported” remark by JFK. Anyone have a believable reference for it?