Sucheta Dalal :Piling On the New York Times With a Scoop
Sucheta Dalal

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Piling On the New York Times With a Scoop  

Story on Secret Program Further Rouses Critics


By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 28, 2006; Page C01


President Bush calls the conduct of the New York Times "disgraceful." Vice President Cheney objects to the paper having won a Pulitzer Prize. A Republican congressman wants the Times prosecuted. National Review says its press credentials should be yanked. Radio commentator Tammy Bruce likens the paper to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.


Even by modern standards of media-bashing, the volume of vitriol being heaped upon the editors on Manhattan's West 43rd Street is remarkable -- especially considering that the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal also published accounts Friday of a secret administration program to monitor the financial transactions of terror suspects. So, in its later editions, did The Washington Post.


Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an interview yesterday that critics "are still angry at us" for disclosing the government's domestic eavesdropping program in December, "and I guess in their view, this adds insult to injury. . . . The Bush administration's reaction roused their base, but also roused the anti-Bush base as well," he said, noting an approximately even split in his e-mail.


Still, Keller added, "a lot of people have legitimate and genuine feelings about this, and I don't mean to belittle that."


For Republicans, the Times, with its national prominence and liberal editorial page opposed to the war in Iraq, is proving an increasingly irresistible target. They contend that exposing the classified banking program has badly undermined the administration's efforts to investigate and capture terrorists.


Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, yesterday asked John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, for a damage assessment following the Times story. Three other GOP senators joined Roberts at a news conference, with John Ensign of Nevada saying the paper "should have worked in cooperation with those authorities in our government to make sure that those who leaked were prosecuted." Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth circulated a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert calling for the paper's congressional credentials to be withdrawn. And New York Rep. Peter King continues to call for the Times -- which, he told Fox News, has an "arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda" -- to be prosecuted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act.


Most Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, lay low. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sidestepped a question yesterday about whether the Times should be prosecuted. Similarly, while the conservative blogosphere was on fire over the Times, many liberal Web sites ignored the controversy.


Keller said he spent more than an hour in late May listening to Treasury Secretary John Snow argue against publication of the story. He said that he also got a call from Negroponte, the national intelligence czar, and that three former officials also made the case to Times editors: Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, chairmen of the 9/11 commission, and Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania -- an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.


"The main argument they made to me, extensively and at length, besides that the program is valuable and legitimate, was that there are a lot of banks that are very sensitive to public opinion, and if this sees the light of day, they may stop cooperating," Keller said.


He acknowledged, as did the Times article, that there was no clear evidence that the banking program was illegal. But, he said, "there were officials who talked to us who were uncomfortable with the legality of this program, and others who were uncomfortable with the sense that what started as a temporary program had acquired a kind of permanence.


"I always start with the premise that the question is, why should we not publish? Publishing information is our job. What you really need is a reason to withhold information."


Such clashes between the government and the press are hardly new. President Kennedy pressed the Times successfully to withhold most details of the impending Bay of Pigs invasion. President Nixon created a "plumbers" unit to stop leaks. The Reagan administration threatened to prosecute news organizations for publishing national security information.

But rarely if ever has any White House mounted such a sustained public campaign against a single news organization. And a vast array of pundits on the right have responded by escalating their rhetoric.


Heather MacDonald, writing in the Weekly Standard, called the Times "a national security threat" that is "drunk" on its own power.


William Bennett, the former Reagan administration official and conservative radio host, said the "cumulative impact" of both Times stories, and The Post's disclosure of secret CIA prisons overseas, had brought the situation to a "critical mass." Conservatives, he said, now wonder: "Gosh, is there a secret operation we're running that won't be disclosed by the press?"


Bennett favors prosecuting journalists in national security cases, but believes that bringing espionage charges is not the best approach. He favors a leak investigation.


"If you go to these reporters and ask who their sources were, then they're in a Judy Miller situation," Bennett said, referring to the former Times reporter who spent 85 days behind bars for refusing to testify in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. "If they don't tell you, they go to jail. Some of us have been saying for a long time that the press is not above the law. Sooner or later you have to prove that."


Stephen Spruiell, who writes about the media for National Review Online, said there was a good reason for the comparatively muted reaction to the telephone eavesdropping story. "The divisive nature of that program tempered some of the criticism," he said. "Because the [banking] program is so defensible, you're seeing a much more vocal response."


Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, questioned how groundbreaking the Times banking report was. "Wouldn't you think any reasonably smart terrorist is going to know that his financial transactions are being tracked?" she asked.


For many people, Dalglish said, publishing secret information about a program that appears to be legal is "a risk they're not willing to take." But the "ugly" nature of the debate, she said, is exasperating: "I don't know how much more hate mail and vicious phone calls I can take."


Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, said his paper had the story nailed down last Wednesday but did not reach a final decision on running it "because, among other things, we hadn't sat down yet with people at Treasury to give them a full chance to tell us why we should or shouldn't do it." At the same time, he said, "we were leaning toward publishing."


At about 7 p.m. Thursday, McManus was meeting with Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey when another department staffer handed Levey a BlackBerry and he announced: "Well, the New York Times has posted its story" on its Web site.


While a Treasury official did tell him that it would be nice if the Los Angeles paper decided not to run the story as a "symbolic gesture," the discussion was rendered moot, McManus said. Levey then went on the record to defend the program, as he did with other newspapers, including The Post, which began playing catch-up that evening.


Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles paper, noted in a letter published yesterday that "many readers have been sharply critical of our decision." He said he weighed the administration's arguments "against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties."


The Wall Street Journal had been working on the banking story for a long period of time but did not reach the point of having enough information to publish until Thursday afternoon, according to a staffer who declined to be identified because the newspaper is making no public comment. The Journal does not know why Treasury officials made no appeal against publication in that paper, but editors assume that by then the officials were resigned to the fact that the details were coming out, the staffer said.


Despite the stories that appeared in competing papers, the New York Times is still bearing the brunt of the criticism at the White House, on Capitol Hill and throughout the media world.


Terence Smith, a former Timesman who until recently was PBS's media correspondent, said the paper is a "lightning rod when its critics are playing politics, and that's what's happening here. An institution like the Times is a God-given target, because it's seen by the conservative base as a liberal newspaper critical of the Bush administration."


-- Sucheta Dalal