Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Who died and left you president of the U.S.?

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

Dear Bill Keller:

Remember me? We met in the elevator here at The Oregonian recently. Your decision to expose a secret program to track terrorist funding got me to thinking I had better write and apologize. I don't think I was sufficiently deferential on our brief ride together. I treated you like the executive editor of The New York Times who used to work for The Oregonian. I had no idea I was riding with the man who decides what classified programs will be made public during a war on terror. I had no idea the American people had elected you president and commander in chief.

Yes, I'm being sarcastic. What's that they say—sarcasm is anger's ugly cousin? I'm angry, Bill.

I get angry when a few unauthorized individuals take it upon themselves to undermine an anti-terror program that even your own paper deems legal and successful. I get angry when the same people decide to blow the lid on a secret program designed to keep Islamic terrorists from killing Americans en masse.

"The disclosure of this program," President Bush said Monday, "is disgraceful."

Strong words, but not strong enough, Bill.

Your decision was contemptible, but your Sunday letter explaining the Times' decision only undermined your case for disclosure.

"It's an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press...," you wrote. "[T]he people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy. ... 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."

Too true, but the issue here is your judgment. It would be one thing if you ran this story because the program was illegal, abusive or feckless. Yet your paper established nothing of the kind. In the end, your patronizing and lame letter offered only press-convention bromides ("a matter of public interest").

"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," you write, after providing a tutorial on how the government only wants the press to publish the official line and the press believes "citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news."

But this is a false and self-serving choice. The issue is your decision to publish classified information that can only aid our enemies. The founders didn't give the media or unnamed sources a license to expose secret national security operations in wartime. They set up a Congress to pass laws against disclosing state secrets and an executive branch to conduct secret operations so the new nation could actually defend itself from enemies, foreign and domestic.

Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff—but it's the kind of elementary stuff that can get lost in the heat of strong disagreements. And get more people killed in the United States or Iraq.

Not to worry, you tell us, terrorists already know we track their funding, and disclosure won't undercut the program. (Contradictory claims, but what the heck.) You at the Times know better. You know better than government officials who said disclosing the program's methods and means would jeopardize a successful enterprise. You know better than the 9/11 Commission chairmen who urged you not to run the story. Better than Republican and Democratic lawmakers who were briefed on the program. Better than the Supreme Court, which has held since 1976 that bank records are not constitutionally protected. Better than Congress, which established the administrative subpoenas used in this program.

Maybe you do. But whether you do or not, there's no accountability. If you're wrong and we fail to stop a terror plot and people die because of your story, who's going to know, much less hold you accountable? No, the government will be blamed—oh, happy day, maybe Bush's White House!—for not connecting dots or crippling terror networks. The Times might even run the kind of editorial it ran on Sept. 24, 2001. Remember? The one that said "much more is needed" to track terror loot, including "greater cooperation with foreign banking authorities"?

Keep up the good work—for al-Qaida.

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