New York Times Editor Bill Keller’s open letter about the Times’ decision to publish an article blowing the cover on a program for tracking terrorist money raises a number of questions. First and foremost in the reader’s mind: How did anybody this stupid get to be editor of such a big paper?
What Keller lacks in smarts, he more than makes up for in pomposity. “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,” Keller begins.
Next comes Mr. Keller’s stab at logic: “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.)”
This is jejune. The terrorists might not have noticed a front-page story in the Times if those right-wings nuts, who have no right to criticize their betters at the New York Times, hadn’t raised a ruckus? It’s your fault, nah nah nah. This is logic worthy of third-grade recess.
Unable to handle logic, Keller is more comfortable descanting on the burdens of his own power:
“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.”
Yada yada yada
“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.”
Question: The power that has been given us? Who “gave” it to you, Bill? I thought somebody bought a printing press and made you editor. I didn’t know power had been officially conferred.
“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.”
[Okay, it’s different if there is a Democrat in the White House.]
“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. …”
[Gawd, I hate dealing with these morons who listen to talk radio and then write me letters.]
“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.”
“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.”
The Times scoop is equivalent to a World War II newspaper’s publishing a story saying that these chaps at Bletchley are working on breaking the German code. It is incredibly helpful to people who want to kill us. We deserve more explanation than this. “Terror financiers” now know more than before the Times tipped them, and it is disingenuous for Keller to argue that the revelations won’t be valuable for them.
We need more information on the Times internal discussions. Keller’s letter tells us little more than: We did it because we COULD. Keller suggests that terrorists will continue to use the international banking system instead of “cruder” methods such as couriers because it is more efficient-and it just got a whole lot safer for them.
The letter ends with a brush-off:
“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.”
Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to “choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government,” he’d choose newspapers. But he hadn’t met Bill Keller’s New York Times. What a pompous -ss.