Accuracy in Media

The Bush Administration sure has a curious way of dealing with news organizations that threaten to disclose classified information and undermine the war on terrorism. Facing the prospect of the New York Times disclosing the existence of another counterterrorism program, the Bush Administration decided to work with the paper to make sure it had all of its information correct about the secret government program searching bank records for terrorist transactions.

If you doubt this happened, consult the transcript of the White House briefing the day the stories appeared. Here’s what press secretary Tony Snow said: “I think it’s important-the one thing we can say is that Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau and Bill Keller and others had-and other reporters who did this, got extensive knowledge and briefing on this. So they knew it. And that’s why-I mean, it’s interesting because I think there’s a fair amount of balance in the story in that you do have concrete benefits and you do have the kind of abstract harms that were mentioned in there. I think it’s important in a case like this, and obviously, we didn’t want to print it. But we also wanted to make sure that as the reporters went through and as the editors went through it that they were fully informed so that they could make their own judgment, and that is what they did.” (emphasis added).

Snow is just following orders, but we have to say that this approach to violations of the law and treason by the media is a tragic mistake. If it threatened national security to have the information disclosed, why did the administration help the news organizations make sure the information was correct? The answer, quite obviously, is that the administration officials wanted to spin the stories in a positive way. This is called taking advantage of a bad situation. But I think they made it worse.

The Wall Street Journal, which also published a story about the secret program monitoring terrorist transactions, declared in an editorial that “?at no point did Treasury officials tell us not to publish the information. And while Journal editors knew the Times was about to publish the story, Treasury officials did not tell our editors they had urged the Times not to publish. What Journal editors did know is that they had senior government officials providing news they didn’t mind seeing in print. If this was a ‘leak,’ it was entirely authorized.”

Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey said that the stories about the “Terrorist Finance Tracking Program” would result in terrorists getting inside knowledge about what the U.S. is doing to cut off their sources of money. This is a “grave loss.” He added, “We cannot expect to continue disrupting their activities if our most valuable programs are exposed on the front page of our newspapers.”

These statements, incidentally, were part of a news conference held to confirm what the Times and other news organizations had reported about the program. Does this make any sense?

This approach reflects fear of the media. It says that the administration has given up an effort to keep this information out of the public domain and that their fallback position is to confirm and try to mold what the media ultimate decided to publish.

Vice President Dick Cheney said, “What I find most disturbing about these stories is the fact that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people.”

Good point. So why is the government helping the media, in effect, and assisting in the disclosure?

“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America,” Bush declared. “For people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America.”

So why not prosecute the Times?

Rather than fill these papers in on the details about the program, a better approach for the White House is to maintain a no-comment and do everything legally possible to prosecute these news organizations. A policy of appeasement of the media only accelerates national suicide.

Tough talk like that from Bush and Cheney is just talk.

The administration can still make a legal case against the Times over the NSA terrorist surveillance program. But it’s been over six months since that damaging story appeared and nothing has been done.

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