Monday, June 26, 2006

Letter From Bill Keller

NYT reported The following is a letter Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, has sent to readers who have written to 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.

Particularly the statements that I should be tried for treason or espionage
As the editor responsible for the difficult decision to publish that story, I'd like to offer a personal response.
  Read a lot more

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.)
You published details about what was being done; they are just complaining about what you did. Would you prefer that they remained silent, and that some one just shot you so you could not do it again?
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.
No they wanted a full debate on what someone running for office thought should be done; not exposing government secrets in a time of war.
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.
Like publishing details on how we are dealing with an asymetric enemy that wants to destroy more buildings, and kill more than 3,000 people.
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.
No, it is when you hype those things, and refulse to print the good things our military is doing.
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.
And since the NYT does not like the administration the voters elected, it is important to only tell them things that will turn them against the current government, and elect one that the NYT would prefer.
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.
Or when we falsified stories and refused to listen to people that told us they were falsified (Jason Blair)
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.
And if we had just printed more information about troop movements in World War II, we might all be saying Sig Heil, and not be troubled by these Muslim Terrorists - our own government would be terrorising the people.
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.
And just risking the lives of our soldiers, or stopping terrorist attacks on the US is not enough; they need to be reasons that would appeal to a liberal mind.
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.
Congress that leaks like a sieve, and gives us so many good stories to print that will hurt this country.
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.
And we hate the current administration so much that we ignore what most Americans want, and cater to the officials that are mad that they are not in power, and who have asked us to hurt the administration as much as possible, even if it hurts the American people.
We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs
So the terrorists will know what we are doing to stop them, and so that they can change their approach and hopefully be able to launch some more attacks on this country, which we at the NYT hope will totally discredit the Republicans, and so that we can get some liberals that we like elected. We just hope that the terrorists will be grateful enough of the aid we have provided them, that they will not blow up the New York Times building.
so that the public can have an informed view of them.

Hugh Hewitt blogged Mr. Keller Believes You Are Easily Confused - The NYT's Executive Editor Bill Keller refuses interviews but does provide a wholly unpersuasive reponse that is, at best, defensive posturing.....
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.
There is no charge --none-- that the program disclosed by the paper last week needed "legislation" to authorize it. And "fully briefed" is a wonderful characterization of what Mr. Keller cannnot possibly claim to know. This is why he avoids interviews. It would be too easy to ask: Who was briefed, Mr. Keller? How do you know that is the extent of the briefing? Did you ask any of the briefed members if they felt fully informed? Is there a problem with leaks on the Hill that obliges the government to adopt special approaches to classified information, approaches which have been in place for decades?.... The Congresses and the presidents of the past have passsed laws about what is classified and who can release it. They didn't include the editor of the New York Times in the group that can make national security decisions. Mr. Keller decided he would risk the national security of the United States and the lives of its citizens. He has done so before and will no doubt do so again.

CQ blogged Rather than discuss the non-secret fact that the government has infiltrated global financial systems to track terrorists -- a fact known by even the most detached American for the past four years -- but that the Times revealed the specific tactics used to track financial transactions. This would be akin to printing planned troop movements during a battle. It tips the enemy to our efforts against them, and allows them to take steps to avoid our reach.

PowerLine blogged The Times of course has no constitutional privelege to protect the identity of its sources. These sources could and should be prosecuted for violating the fundamental laws that govern their conduct. If the administration cannot summon the political will to prosecute the Times, the administration should at the least, in cases involving serious breaches of national security, abandon the policy of treating reporters as witnesses of last resort. It should promptly call Keller, Risen, Lichtblau et al. before a grand jury in which they are asked to identify their sources and given the Judith Miller treatment when they refuse.... Lincoln feared the "mobocratic spirt" at large across the country in the hands of ignorant men who took justice into their own hands and committed violent outrages. Today the same "mobocratic spirit" can be seen in the hands of the smug sophisticates at the Times and elsewhere who share this in common with the mobs of Lincoln's day: "the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice."

Don Suber blogged This story in and of itself had no news value. Congressional and judicial oversight were already there. What is the story is that the New York Times was willing to expose and possibly end a perfectly legal and apparently effective spy program. I still do not know why Keller did this.

Blue Crab blogged If anything it gets even more sanctimonious and self serving from there. This is elitist lecturing at it's worst. And it explains nothing. Not one bit of useful information as to why Billy and Pinch thought a good, useful, effective and legal program should be exposed and ruined. The so-called defense of "we don't see any harm" is complete balderdash. How do you see a negative, Mr. Kellor? How do you see that the programs you have destroyed no longer work? Maybe when Americans die as a result of your efforts? Will that help you see the damage you've done? Your explanation stinks, Mr. Kellor.

Mark blogged What a ridiculous, self-serving and hypocritical thing to say. The New York Times strokes itself as "the paper of record" and then blames others for the publicity which the Times itself has generated. And the sentence has not only set the tone for the remainder of his letter but is also the letter's summary. Doesn't one usually leave the summary for last? However, Keller did us a favor, I suppose, by stating the summary so early so that we might put down his missive immediately and go on to other things.

Ace blogged The press has broken the truce that has kept the peace since the Pentagon Papers case, putting us into a strange new world where jailing newspaper men is not only thinkable, but increasingly necessary if we are to avoid the mass murder of American citizens. This is the consequence of the Left's silly jihad against the press, claiming it "doesn't stand up to Bush enough." The media, being firmly on the left, takes such criticisms to heart, and now, to prove its mettle to the only Americans whose opinions (or lives) it values, it now acts as Al Qaeda's unofficial US-based intelligence agency. Jane's -- the big British defense tech publisher -- has been called the world's biggest private intelligence agency. No more. Now it's the NYT, and it's subcontracting itself out to Al Qaeda.

Riehl blogged And while it's a stretch, an email I received points out it is interesting to ponder what might happen if formal action against the New York Times were to take place, given that the paper is controlled by the family in a far from usual stock arrangement. Such an occurrence could lend added weight for the call to dissolve the Class B stock arrangement and give control of the paper to the common shareholders. For a good discussion of pertinent law, see this previous post by Andrew McCarthy at NRO on the heels of the recent Washington Post affair, when they too published classified information.

Squiggler blogged Not only does he put himself and the Times above the law, but above the President, and then claims that it is his duty to know what is best, despite many who tried in vain to convince him otherwise. Can you say God complex?

Glenn Reynolds blogged The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn't give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of Constitutional High Priest, when in fact the "freedom of the press" the Framers described was also called "freedom in the use of the press." It's the freedom to publish, a freedom that belongs to everyone in equal portions, not a special privilege for the media industry. (A bit more on this topic can be found here.)

And what may be the best responses were from Political Musings blogged The Times has chosen sides in the war. Sad to say it isn’t ours.

and Wizbang blogged I'll give you the Reader's Digest version:
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.
Bill Keller

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