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L.A. Times’ Doyle McManus On The Publishing Of the SWIFT Program

Monday, June 26, 2006
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HH: On Friday, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published the story detailing the SWIFT program to track the money of terrorists. The Los Angeles Times was represented in some of those conversations, and the decision to go forward with the story by Doyle McManus, their long-serving and widely-respected Washington bureau chief of the Times. Mr. McManus joins us now from D.C. Thank you for joining us. I appreciate it very much, Mr. McManus.

DM: Thank you for having me on.

HH: When you were being approached by the federal government not to run with this story, which officials did you meet with?

DM: We met with officials from several different agencies, and talked with a White House official, not at a face to face meeting, and we met with Stuart Levey of the Treasury Department, the undersecretary who was running the program.

HH: How about with Treasury Secretary Snow?

DM: We did not meet with Treasury Secretary Snow.

HH: Did Dean Baquet get involved in this, the editor of the Los Angeles Times?

DM: He did. A decision of this magnitude would naturally go all the way up to the editor.

HH: Did he come to the Washington meetings that you were holding with the Treasury Department officials?

DM: No, he didn’t.

HH: In those meetings that you held, Doyle McManus, did the officials, including Mr. Levey, argue that publishing this information would help terrorists?

DM: They did, although it may be worth noting that by the time we were having our principal meeting with Mr. Levey and his aides, which was a meeting that lasted about 90 minutes, at which we asked them to give us the fullest and best case for not printing the story, they had already concluded that the New York Times was going ahead. And the tenor of the meeting was one in which they took as the context, that the New York Times was going to publish the story. And as a matter of fact, in the middle of the meeting we were having, one of the lawyers looked at his blackberry, and kind of rolled his eyes, and got a message to Mr. Levey, and it turned out the New York Times had posted the story at that point. So at that point, the discussion shifted from their making a case against publishing the story to their making a case…their assumption that at this point, everybody was going to publish a story, and they in fact were quite helpful in filling in some of the details of the program, to make sure we had an accurate story, as you saw later in the news conference that Mr. Levey and Secretary Snow had on Friday, I think.

HH: Now Mr. McManus, when they argued to you that publishing the story would help terrorists, did you not believe them?

DM: I did…I neither believed it nor disbelieved it. I would believe I took that seriously. It’s impossible for me to evaluate independently to what degree…whether the potential assistance to terrorists…I think they actually didn’t argue that it would help terrorists. They argued that it would disadvantage, or make more difficult, counter-terrorist programs. But that’s probably a distinction without a difference. What…would that be momentous? Would it be marginal? I don’t know.

HH: Is it possible, in your view, Doyle McManus, that the story will in fact help terrorists elude capture?

DM: It is conceivable, yeah, although it might be worth noting that in our reporting, officials told us that this would, this disclosure would probably not affect al Qaeda, which figured out long ago that the normal banking system was not how it ought to move its money, and so turned to other unofficial and informal channels.

HH: The terrorist Hambali came up. He was captured in August of ’03, mastermind/financier of the Bali bombing. Are you familiar with Hambali?

DM: I am.

HH: And did they alert you to the fact that they believe that Hambali was captured as a result of this SWIFT program?

DM: They did not. The first I knew of that was when I read it in the New York Times.

HH: Is it possible now that whoever was familiar with what Hambali did, those terrorists in Southeast Asia, could just simply reverse engineer his financing, and figure out what they shouldn’t do now?

DM: Well, I suppose it’s possible, except in effect, what we’re talking about here is the simple question of whether international banking transmissions are monitored. And one of the perplexing parts of this story is that the Treasury Department has said you know, everybody knew that. We said that we were aggressively looking for the transactions, looking for the financial flows, doing everything we could to monitor where the money was going. And so that’s only one part of the Treasury’s concern, and it may, oddly enough, be a lesser part, the larger part of their concern…I shouldn’t speak for them. I shouldn’t attempt to say which was the larger and which was the smaller, but another large part of their concern was the fear that these disclosures might prompt the banks that are the constituents of the SWIFT system, to be less cooperative than they have been in the past.

HH: Well, Mr. Levey has said, and John Snow wrote to Bill Keller today, and said no, our major concern was not helping terrorists. So I’ll put that aside. Is there a difference between knowing, Doyle McManus, that, say, a city that’s looking for speeders, and knowing that they’ve installed a camera at a particular intersection?

DM: Sure.

HH: And is that analogy not applicable in this situation, that yeah, the terrorists might have known they were looking for following financial flows, but they weren’t aware of the SWIFT program? Is that possible?

DM: It’s possible, except that neither you nor I know where the SWIFT program is, or what it covers.

HH: Did they declare to you that Congress had been briefed?

DM: They did.

HH: And did they give you specifics about it?

DM: No, we went to Congress to figure that out, and it turned out that a few members had been briefed, and that the intelligence committees as a whole hadn’t been briefed until after Treasury began to believe that the story was likely to come out.

HH: Prior to that.

DM: So if the question of briefing Congress goes to the important issue of oversight, the oversight, I think any fair-minded person would say, that there was a minimal form of oversight, but it wasn’t complete oversight.

HH: How do you ascertain for sure that the minimal amount of oversight wasn’t sufficient?

DM: Well, I don’t. Well, that is a…let me put it this way. For other intelligence operations that the United States undertakes, it submits them to the oversight of the intelligence committees. They made, the executive branch made a decision in this case not to do that. The executive branch says, Treasury says, that it thinks the oversight was sufficient. The heart of this issue is that the department that designed this program, and that ran this program, is saying that the program is legal, that the safeguards were strict, and that the oversight was sufficient. Maybe that’s all true. But they haven’t submitted any of those assertions to any outside review.

HH: Has any member of Congress complained on the record, other than Ed Markey, that the briefing was insufficient?

DM: Yes, as a matter of fact. I believe Barney Frank has, another Democrat. I believe Jane Harman has, another Democrat, Senator Specter, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee has said he’s not sure the program was legal, and he wants to hear more from all sides before he makes a judgment about that. So it’s not the case that this program is…

HH: Had you heard that from them prior to publication?

DM: No. We couldn’t, because in fact, prior to publication…well, no, we had not, because among other things, the government asked us to limit our reporting, which we did.

HH: Do you agree, Doyle McManus…

DM: That is to say, the government asked us to limit the questions we asked, and to limit the places we went to ask them, so that if we chose not to publish the story, we would not have spread the story as a byproduct of our reporting. And we, in fact, honored that request.

HH: Sure. Do you agree, Doyle McManus, that the press has no exemption from the national security statutes?

DM: I do agree with that.

HH: And if called before a grand jury, would you reveal the sources in the government that leaked you this information?

DM: That would be a judgment that we would have to make at that time.

HH: So it’s possible that you would?

DM: That would depend on the nature of the pledges we made to those sources.

HH: So it’s possible that that, in fact, would reveal who it is that’s leaking this?

DM: It’s hypothetically possible, yeah.

HH: Talking now with Doyle McManus off-air. We’ll replay this during the program. Mr. McManus, earlier today, Stuart Levey said to me that, “the effectiveness of this program has been damaged.” Do you believe him?

DM: I don’t know. I would…look, reporters like to check things out. Reporters take assertions by government officials seriously, but then they go check them out in practice.

HH: He also said it will, “make it difficult to do counter-terrorism.” Do you believe that?

DM: Again, I’d have to check it out. The Treasury Department said it was monitoring financial transactions. This is…these stories filled in some detail, some important details, about how they’re doing that. I’m not sure how the Treasury Department can, in effect, have it both says, say that, proclaim that they were doing this, but say that this level of detail, which is not, in fact, great, in some senses, damages those efforts, but I’m not dismissing the question, either. I think that there’s a whole lot of further serious study.

HH: Given that you’re okay with the possibility that this might have helped the terrorists, and might have hurt our counter-terrorism, and damaged the program, are you losing any sleep over the possibility, Doyle McManus, that some terrorists will get away and kill as a result of these stories?

DM: I’m not okay with the possibility, Mr. Hewitt. I think that possibility has to be measured against the possibility that the federal government has expanded its intrusive powers of surveillance and investigation without sufficient oversight and safeguards. If we want to ignore the balancing question here, well, then, we could grant the federal government license in the war against terrorists to do anything at all. I know you’re not suggesting that. No one serious has suggested that. But I think it’s also unfair to suggest that those of us involved in these stories decided that we were simply okay with letting the terrorists know any secrets it wants.

HH: I didn’t mean to say…I meant to say given that you will accept that it may have caused that. That’s what I mean, okay with the premise.

DM: Okay.

HH: Now what I’m wondering, though, is, how did you balance? What probability did you assign to the terrorist tack that doesn’t get stopped because of this story?

DM: Well, I can’t give you a mathematical formula on that. And as a matter of fact, when we made our decision to publish our story, the New York Times had already published its. So as a matter of fact, we had not had the set of discussions that we had scheduled on precisely how to balance that. So in a sense, I can’t tell you how we balanced it, because we ended up not coming to a final decision. Now I don’t mean to be disingenuous. We were certainly leaning in the direction of publishing, but we hadn’t finally decided to.

HH: Time for just a couple more questions. I hope you’ll come back, Mr. McManus. Are you and the folks at the Los Angeles Times qualified to evaluate the terrorist networks, their sophistication in how they respond to information, from classified information?

DM: Well, we are journalists, we’re qualified to go ask the smartest people we can find those questions, and that’s about the best we can do.

HH: Did anyone who would go on the record tell you this would have no significant damage to the counter-terrorism effort?

DM: I don’t believe anyone made that unqualified statement, no.

HH: Given that you couldn’t find anyone to tell you that it wouldn’t be damaging, wouldn’t the necessary conclusion be that it would be?

DM: That’s a reasonable inference. But we did…there were people who told us that they believed that the damage, if any, would be minimal.

HH: Sgt. T.F. Boggs, who’s serving in Iraq on his second tour, sent a letter to Mr. Keller after the story published at the New York Times, in which he included the line, “Thank you for continually contributing to the deaths of my fellow soldiers.” He, and many other mil-bloggers, are as angry as they can be, and they believe that these stories, yours among them, have contributed to the death of Americans and the empowerment of terrorists. I want you to have a chance to respond before you’ve got to leave, Mr. McManus.

DM: Well, I respect Sgt. Boggs, and I respect what he’s doing for our country. I think accusing newspapers of causing the deaths of soldiers over the last several years because of a story that was printed last week probably adds more heat than light to this discussion.

HH: I appreciate your coming on, Doyle Mcmanus. I hope you will come back, and when you have a lot more time, because a lot of people would love to talk to you. But I do appreciate your making the time today.

DM: Thank you, sir.

HH: Thank you, Doyle McManus, of the Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C. office.

End of interview.

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