This is a truly shocking revelation by the New York Times ombudsman Byrone Calame (hat tip to Michelle Malkin). In a column published Sunday, Calame – the Times' “public editor” – has reversed a previous position of his concerning the Times June 23 article about secret international banking surveillance designed to uncover the sources of terrorist funding. Now, Calame thinks it was a mistake for the Times to reveal the existence of this program (emphasis mine throughout):
After pondering for several months, I have decided I was off base. There were reasons to publish the controversial article, but they were slightly outweighed by two factors to which I gave too little emphasis. While it’s a close call now, as it was then, I don’t think the article should have been published.
Those two factors are really what bring me to this corrective commentary: the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused. I had mentioned both as being part of “the most substantial argument against running the story,” but that reference was relegated to the bottom of my column.
This is quite a reversal for Calame who wrote at the time:
My close look convinced me that Bill Keller, the executive editor, was correct in deciding that Times readers deserved to read about the banking-data surveillance program. And the growing indications that this and other financial monitoring operations were hardly a secret to the terrorist world minimizes the possibility that the article made America less safe.
Now, more than three months later, Calame doesn't feel the same way:
I haven’t found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws. Although data-protection authorities in Europe have complained that the formerly secret program violated their rules on privacy, there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken. Data-protection rules are often stricter in Europe than in America, and have been a frequent source of friction.
Also, there still haven’t been any abuses of private data linked to the program, which apparently has continued to function. That, plus the legality issue, has left me wondering what harm actually was avoided when The Times and two other newspapers disclosed the program. The lack of appropriate oversight — to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention — was a key reason I originally supported publication. I think, however, that I gave it too much weight.
Calame miraculously concluded:
Amazing. Of course, one has to wonder how much press – if any – Calame’s new position will get, especially sixteen days before an election. Certainly, it seems safe to assume that the drive-by media aren't going to want to give a lot of publicity to the fact that the New York Times own ombudsman now thinks it was wrong for that paper to reveal what ended up being a legal surveillance program.
In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn’t a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a “secret” program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism.)
What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers about in my first column.