Saturday, July 01, 2006

Excuses, Excuses

D'ya ever wonder whether New York Times editor Bill Keller is proud of his publication's yeoman work in exposing vast swaths of his country's national security secrets in the by-its-very-nature shadowy war on Islamic Fundamentalism? Given that his paper has blown two huge clandestine anti-terrorism programs in the space of six months, I have to think that he's not ashamed of what he and his people are doing to the chances of thousands more American civilians perishing at al Qaeda's hands. But you would never get that impression from how he flew the coop after the Times story on the Swift terrorist finances tracking program broke a week ago, and his lame-assed ducking of any interviews (where he just possibly might have been asked a tough question or two) in favor of a "drive-by" letter that came across like a badly-acted bewilderment at what the fuss is all about.

Since there's no such thing as too many fiskings, and I've finally got the time to flense this rotting carcass, we'll start at the beginning:

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.

"Difficult decision," my ass. I'll elaborate more below, but Keller's wallowing in self-enoblement has me rummaging for the drammamine.

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 combating the threat of terror.

Maybe this is a tacit admission on Keller's part of his paper's plummeting circulation and dwindling influence. But even he can't really expect anybody to buy that the NYT isn't still a prominent, if no longer dominant, media outlet, or that he respects the center-right media enough to truly believe that nobody would have noticed the story he pushed but for his partisan/ideological foes picking it up and amplifying it. Even if that were true, it suggests that he ran the story for precisely that purpose, which doesn't change the underlying mercenary (at best) motivations one bit other than to toss in a gratuitous shot at the collective intelligence of "conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits."

Beats me how "conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits" differ much from "readers who…wonder whether publishing such material is wise." The latter might seem more polite, or else they're just being sarcastic instead of indignant. And it's difficult not to be both at the suggestion of "having a public debate" about this issue when its very airing short-circuits any possibility of genuine deliberations by rendering the subject matter moot.

You want a "debate," Mr. Keller? Try this: we weren't tracking terrorist finances or communications before 9/11, and three thousand Americans perished; our government has been doing so ever since, and we haven't been hit again. It's hard to see your "rebuttal" as anything other than that you think we should give al Qaeda another shot.

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.

What "abuse of power"? The Times' own story stated unequivocally that there was no such abuse, nothing of the slightest questionable legality, about the Swift program. That renders that whole graf non-responsive, evasive, and outright narcissistic, and shows editocrats like Keller to be flagrantly irresponsible with the "unusual and powerful thing" he evidently thinks the Founders gave to him personally.

He also calls Bush a liar (again) in so many words, but after five and a half years that's media SOP.

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.

Bullbleep. If the responsibility weighed as heavily on him as he puts over, he wouldn't have run the story. It's that simple. That he did knowing that doing so would destroy a prime anti-terrorism tool that wasn't extralegal or invasive of public privacy in the slightest, and that that was itself a premeditatedly illegal act, shows that he did so eagerly, and is now trying to slither past the sulfuric fallout without getting any of it on him while polishing his halo every inch of the way.

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.

The government didn't ask Keller to "publish only the official line"; they asked Keller not to expose a classified anti-terrorism program that had been highly effective at defending the homeland against further attacks. That Keller debases that into an imputation of Clintonian self-interest on the part of the Bush Administration is repugnant.

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.

The problem isn't the "unpleasant news" from Iraq, but that it is all Keller's reporters ever entrust to "citizens." He never bothers to provide the full story and all the offsetting good news precisely because it would make public demoralization harder to bring about - as well as adding "complications" his agenda doesn't need.

In the mean time, he cites not a single example of the Bush Administration trying to dictate his editorial policy. Most likely because there aren't any.

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.

Not sabotaging national security isn't a compelling reason? And what the devil do JFK and the Bay of Pigs have to do with it? Keller must have been choking on his own smokescreen by this time.

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.

More obfuscation. As in taking the "pretty elementary stuff" of recklessly endangering the lives of the American people for partisan political advantage, festooning it with all matter of irrelevancies, and then condescendingly dismissing the "strong disagreement" as little more than puerile ignorance.

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.

The epitome of arrogant presumption. Article II of the Constitution provides the President with all they authority he needs to launch broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs. But if it's legislation Keller was seeking, why is the September 20, 2001 war resolution against al Qaeda and its state sponsors not sufficient?

The "fully briefing Congress" swipe sounds like an oblique complaint about too few leaks from Capitol Hill.

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.

"Some officials" who cowardly won't go on the record because they know they're breaking the law by speaking to the press about this stuff. "Some officials" who are doubtless part of the Bushophobic "shadow government" of Clinton holdovers the Bushies foolishly neglected to purge who have been waging a war against the war since the beginning. And "some officials" who, like Keller & friends, think they know better than "most Americans" and the President they elected what's best for national security and do not let democracy or the rule of law get in the way of imposing their prescriptions on everybody else whether we want them or not.

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.

Those "national security experts not serving in the Administration" were doubtless of the same ilk as the "some officials" referenced above, seeing as how Keller doesn't identify them. That he goes out of his way to point out his proximity to Ground Zero tells me either that he doesn't take terrorism seriously or that he has a deathwish. After 9/11 either mindset is, not to put too fine a point on it, bleeping nuts. And yet he takes it upon himself to make that decision for all his fellow countrymen as well as the President whose decision it actually is. Makes me wonder if he was expecting thank you notes instead.

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.

This wasn't a "case," it was the fricking facts. Note how impressed Keller wasn't by them.

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 financiers 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.

A program that cannot work at all unless it remains classified. This sounds like Keller sent Risen and Lichtblau after this story in the full, slavering expectation of finding the long-sought and highly elusive "Bush Watergate" that would bring down this Administration once and for all, and instead discovered to his profound dismay that the Swift program was pretty much everything the White House said it was. But rather than drop the story and concede anything to the president they hate, he went ahead and ran it anyway, law and consequences be damned. Keller heaping faint praise on Swift after functionally killing it, and claiming that the public is better off knowing about how wonderful an anti-terrorism program it was, is the height of cynicism.

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.

Wanna bet? And even if Keller had been right about foreign bankers not bailing on Swift, that doesn't change the fact that he exposed the finest details of the program to our enemies, telling them how to adjust their financing apparatuses to evade our tracking efforts. Where's the incentive for our allies to cooperate in any manner of clandestine anti-terrorism effort if they know that the American media in general, and the New York Times in particular, will splatter it all over its front pages the first chance it gets?

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.

"To the best of my knowledge" means that Keller has no bleeping clue how much damage his paper did to the NSA terrorist surveillance program, and cares even less. Though since that's probably something the government wants to keep quiet in order to prevent any further damage, I'm sure that, too, is a story that he'll run at the earliest opportunity. "In for a penny, in for a pound," as the saying goes, the mindset that fairly permeates his decision to sabotage Swift.

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.

Half-hearted? The 9/11 Commission co-chairs - you know, the very same people whose recommendations the Times demanded that the Bush Administration implement immediately in toto not two years ago - begged the Times not to run the Swift story, as a highly peeved outgoing Treasury Secretary John Snow was not slow in reiterating:

Your charge that our efforts to convince the New York Times not to publish were "half-hearted" is incorrect and offensive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past two months, Treasury has engaged in a vigorous dialogue with the Times - from the reporters writing the story to the D.C. Bureau Chief and all the way up to you. It should also be noted that the co-chairmen of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission, Governor Tom Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, met in person or placed calls to the very highest levels of the Times urging the paper not to publish the story. Members of Congress, senior U.S. Government officials and well-respected legal authorities from both sides of the aisle also asked the paper not to publish or supported the legality and validity of the program.

Indeed, I invited you to my office for the explicit purpose of talking you out of publishing this story. And there was nothing "half-hearted" about that effort. I told you about the true value of the program in defeating terrorism and sought to impress upon you the harm that would occur from its disclosure. I stressed that the program is grounded on solid legal footing, had many built-in safeguards, and has been extremely valuable in the war against terror. Additionally, Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey met with the reporters and your senior editors to answer countless questions, laying out the legal framework and diligently outlining the multiple safeguards and protections that are in place.

Keep Secretary Snow's words in mind as you read Keller's final graf:

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.

Bullbleep. Also horsebleep, chickenbleep, and gorillableep. Bill Keller is a liar and a traitor, and his letter can and should be summed up as Wizbang did:

Dear Reader:

1) We have no reason to believe the program was illegal in any way.

2) We have every reason to believe it was effective at catching terrorists.

3) We ran the story anyway, screw you.

And, on behalf of the American people, Mr. Keller, the sentiment is heartily reciprocated.

[H/T: CQ - 1, 2, 3, 4; Double H]

UPDATE: Keller would have been well-advised to just keep his mouth shut and go to ground. The public anger against the NYT is only growing more frenzied with each slimey, self-serving word he puts out in defense of his paper's pantsing of the Swift program. So what has he done now? Put out another slimey, self-serving defense of the indefensible!

Sometimes you just can't stop a man from committing professional suicide. I just hope we all live long enough to see Bill Keller standing in the unemployment line, and the offices at 43rd Street in Manhatten converted into another Wal*Mart.