The New York Times’ irresponsible banking spy scoop is looking more and more like it will backfire on the paper, causing both a public relation nightmare and raising plausible legal concerns for both the leakers and the journalists they leaked to, as conservatives debate consequences for the paper's behavior.
Four days after it appeared on Friday's front page, the banking spy scoop is still roiling on Fox News and in the blogosphere. Taking the Web's temperature finds the right side enraged, engaged, and red hot, while it’s rather quiet on the left-wing front, indicating that just maybe the Times may have gone too far to rely on its usual allies to rise up in defense.
Indeed, one reads the original story (by the same notorious team of Eric Lichtblau and James Risen that uncovered the National Security Agency scoop last December) and you wonder why they bothered publishing. The Times itself finds no illegality, not a single allegation of a civil rights violation. What is left appears to be Editor Bill Keller's knee-jerk impulse to reveal any Bush administration secret at any time just because he can.
While the paper’s NSA alleged “domestic surveillance” scoop caused some dissent among some conservatives, the right seems unified against the Times on the matter of exposing surveillance of possible terror-related transactions at the international banking cooperative known as SWIFT. At least on one issue, the Times can brag that it has unified the conservative movement.
Tuesday’s front-page story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg shows the White House engaged in a fierce war of words with what it considers "disgraceful" behavior by the Times.
“President Bush on Monday condemned as ‘disgraceful’ the disclosure last week by The New York Times and other newspapers of a secret program to investigate and track terrorists that relies on a vast international database that includes Americans' banking transactions.
“The remarks were the first in public by Mr. Bush on the issue, and they came as the administration intensified its attacks on newspapers' handling of it. In a speech in Nebraska on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly criticized The Times by name, while Treasury Secretary John W. Snow dismissed as ‘incorrect and offensive’ the rationale offered by the newspaper's executive editor for the decision to publish.
"’Congress was briefed,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America.’”
Vice president Cheney mixed it up as well, telling an audience at a fundraising luncheon: “Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs.”
“The executive editor of The Times, Bill Keller, said in an e-mail statement on Monday evening that the decision to publish had been ‘a hard call.’ But Mr. Keller noted that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has ‘embarked on a number of broad, secret programs aimed at combating terrorism, often without seeking new legal authority or submitting to the usual oversight.’
“He added, ‘I think it would be arrogant for us to pre-empt the work of Congress and the courts by deciding these programs are perfectly legal and abuse-proof, based entirely on the word of the government.’”
Yet the Times itself pre-empted the anti-terror work of the administration by crippling another Al Qaeda-surveillance program.
Stolberg admits there hasn't been much in the way of outcry over the revelations themselves. “On Capitol Hill, the financial-tracking program itself has not generated much criticism, even from Democrats, since its existence was disclosed. A spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Mr. Reid was briefed on the program several weeks ago and had concluded that ‘it does not appear to be based on the same shaky and discredited legal analysis the vice president and his allies invoked to underpin the N.S.A. domestic spying program.’"
The Times has one defender in Congress, the ultra-liberal Ed Markey of Massachusetts: “who has made privacy a signature issue and who said in an interview Monday that the Bush administration was adopting a strategy of ‘shoot the messenger’ in trying to avoid Congressional oversight of the financial tracking program.”
For more on this story and other bias in the New York Times, visit TimesWatch.