With Bush Gone, NYT More Concerned With National Security Than Freedom of the Press

The New York Times has apparently discovered its inner patriot. The paper decided after a request from the White House to hold off publishing key information about the war effort in Afghanistan for fear of alerting the enemy to key U.S. intelligence.

The Times and its executive editor Bill Keller, who defended the decision, have left the nation collectively uttering, "It's about time." Now that's change we can believe in.

Keller told WNYC radio today that two Times reporters had a story ready to go on Thursday about the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top military commander in Pakistan. The paper decided to hold off on running the story until today, the date the White House requested.

The National Security Council, Keller recalled, "thought it had been a clean snatch and they were afraid once the word got out, other Taliban officials would go deeper underground or take measures to cover their tracks. So they asked us to hold off for a while."

The paper's decision not to compromise such vital information is admirable, and has surely aided in the fight against the Taliban in the Af-Pak region. But where was this patriotic desire to cooperate with the nation's war effort when the Times made public the SWIFT terrorist finance tracking program (TFTP), or a host of other highly sensitive programs designed to rout the nation's enemies?

"The Swift story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals," the Times claimed in its defense in 2006 after it came under fire for exposing the TFTP.

But making the Taliban aware of last week's key capture would not jeopardize lives any more than the disclosure of the TFTP would have. Awareness of either would allow enemies to adjust their strategies accordingly; the Taliban would go further underground in the latter case, while al Qaeda and other terrorist groups would better mind their finances in the former.

Yet the Times agreed to hold off on last week's story having brushed off Bush administration requests not to disclose details of the TFTP.

"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," the Times added in its 2006 apologia.

But once again, it is not clear that the capture of a Taliban commander is any more "grave and overriding" a reason to withhold information than details about a program intended to stop the flow of money to terrorist groups.

However, the Times made a strange contradiction in its response to critics who said it exposed TFTP for political reasons:

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.

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.

So the Times insisted that exposing the TFTP would not hurt the Bush administraiton politically, then it went on - in the next paragraph! - to attack the administration on political grounds for using measures such as the TFTP to combat terrorism.

The Times also implied that Bush used terrorism to enhance executive power, not enhanced executive power to combat terrorism. There is a big difference, and the Times's implications are rife with political antagonism.

One need not take a political stance on the Bush administration's terror policies, however, to note the hypocrisy in the Times's standards for the publication of national security information.

The Times finished its 2006 defense with a spirited appeal to freedom of the press:

The United States will soon be marking the fifth anniversary of the war on terror. The country is in this for the long haul, and the fight has to be coupled with a commitment to individual liberties that define America's side in the battle. A half-century ago, the country endured a long period of amorphous, global vigilance against an enemy who was suspected of boring from within, and history suggests that under those conditions, it is easy to err on the side of security and secrecy. 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.

So why is it that when the Bush administration asked the Times to hold off on publication - and the Times refused - the paper was defending a critical right to free speech? But when the Obama administration made the same request, the paper erred on the side of security rather than "civil liberties"?

The answer, of course, is that the Times believed what the Bush administration was doing - the program the paper revealed, as well as other enhanced executive powers designed to prosecute the war on terror - was wrong. It is clear about its stance on those policies in the paragraph quoted above and throughout the 2006 editorial.

The Times believed the administration was infringing on the rights of Americans, and felt the public should know.

But these differences of opinion are political differences - how much power is a president permitted to amass in time of war - and the decision to publish a story revealing presidential powers the paper found disagreeable was still a political decision.

Concern for Americans' liberties pertained not to the right to publish information - why defend this right in 2006 but not in 2010? - but rather to the information that was being published.

For the Times, political differences were the key determinant, not an apolitical and absolute reverence for the First Amendment, the public's right to that information, or the paper's right to print it.