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Mr. Keller Believes You Are Easily Confused

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The NYT’s Executive Editor Bill Keller refuses interviews but does provide a wholly unpersuasive reponse that is, at best, defensive posturing.

I don’t always have time to answer my mail as fully as etiquette demands, but our story about the government’s surveillance of international banking records has generated some questions and concerns that I take very seriously. As the editor responsible for the difficult decision to publish that story, I’d like to offer a personal response.

First, unless Mr. Keller makes himself available for interviews on this subject, he is not taking the questions and concerns seriously.

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.) Some comes from readers who have considered the story in question and wonder whether publishing such material is wise. And some comes from readers who are grateful for the information and think it is valuable to have a public debate about the lengths to which our government has gone in combatting the threat of terror.

The very first thing Mr. Keller does is suggest that “conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits” are behind the uproar. This is not responsive at all to any of the many criticisms of the decision to publish, and the parenthetical aside is absurd –does he really think that the story is more publicized among terrorists because critics react to it? He must believe the terrorists to be very stupid indeed, but in so arguing reveals himself to be ignorant of the very sophisticated internet tacticians among the jihadists.

And the sentence noting the support he has received is more posturing. Unless every letter received is published, we have no way of knowing what his mail says, and no reason to trust him.

It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. 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.

This is the first asssertion by Mr. Keller that the Times is above the law. It is also a crude trick to exchange the publication of national security secrets for “taking the President at his word,” which is most certainly not what triggered the outrage.

Nor has his paper “surrendered” anything obviously. I haven’t seen one argument that the story could have been enjoined, only that its publication violated the law and damaged the national security.

The straw men are falling fast.

The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly. The responsibility of it weighs most heavily on us when an issue involves national security, and especially national security in times of war. I’ve only participated in a few such cases, but they are among the most agonizing decisions I’ve faced as an editor.

Deep into the letter and we still have no argument over his right to violate national security laws or endanger national security. So what if he tells us he “agonizes” over these decisions.

The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest.

In a half dozen years inside the government and 17 years as a journalist, I have never –never– heard or seen any government official say that they want the press to “publish only the official line.” That is simply false and hilariously so.

For example, some members of the Administration have argued over the past three years that when our reporters describe sectarian violence and insurgency in Iraq, we risk demoralizing the nation and giving comfort to the enemy. Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials.

Mr. Keller might have quoted a particular example, but if he had, it would have been too easy to refute another slap dash “argument.” Lots of folks have criticized lots of stories out of Iraq, but no responsible official has argued that the public not be given unplesant or complicated news.

Our default position ‘” our job ‘” is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair and accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not “why publish?” but “why would we withhold information of significance?” We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.

Ah, the Bay of Pigs. President Kennedy’s remorse. Again, a wholly unresponsive argument as to why the New York Times should be helping terrorists understand how the U.S. tracks their financial transactions.

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.

How condescending can a MSMer be? To pretend to be discussing “elementary stuff” while avoiding the issue is as arrogant as can be imagined.

Since September 11, 2001, our government has launched broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing the Congress.

There is no charge –none– that the program disclosed by the paper last week needed “legislation” to authorize it. And “fully briefed” is a wonderful characterization of what Mr. Keller cannnot possibly claim to know. This is why he avoids interviews. It would be too easy to ask: Who was briefed, Mr. Keller? How do you know that is the extent of the briefing? Did you ask any of the briefed members if they felt fully informed? Is there a problem with leaks on the Hill that obliges the government to adopt special approaches to classified information, approaches which have been in place for decades?

Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to the Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government’s actions and over the adequacy of oversight. We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them.

Without disclosing the officials, we cannot be certain of their rank, their rancor, and their other agendas. We only know they are willing to break the law and their oaths. Mr. Keller’s refusal to acknowledge this basic problem is more evidence of the deep dishonesty of his letter. He again asserts a “public interest” that is not his to judge as against the laws passed by Congress, signed by presidents and interpreted by courts. But he doesn’t argue why his judgment in this matter trumps that of the government and the people’s elected representatives.

Our decision to publish the story of the Administration’s penetration of the international banking system followed weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me. We listened patiently and attentively. We discussed the matter extensively within the paper. We spoke to others ‘” national security experts not serving in the Administration ‘” for their counsel. It’s worth mentioning that the reporters and editors responsible for this story live in two places ‘” New York and the Washington area ‘” that are tragically established targets for terrorist violence. The question of preventing terror is not abstract to us.

The question of preventing terror is not abstract to any American, but it is much more real to some than to others, and as Sgt. Boggs notes in his letter to Mr. Keller, it is most real to the front line soldiers in Iraq. Mr. Keller does not provide us with the names of the national security experts he consulted. Again, there is no reason to believe him, and his slippery tactics in fact contribute to great distrust.

The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that the program is good ‘” that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.

I pause to note that this is the editor of the New York Times. Read those two sentences again.

It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.

This is what lawyers call “an admission against interest.” He’s got no “public interest” argument beyond a general “they can’t consider what they don’t know about.”

We weighed most heavily the Administration’s concern that describing this program would endanger it. The central argument we heard from officials at senior levels was that international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day. We don’t know what the banking consortium will do, but we found this argument puzzling. First, the bankers provide this information under the authority of a subpoena, which imposes a legal obligation. Second, if, as the Administration says, the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it. The Bush Administration and America itself may be unpopular in Europe these days, but policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere. And while it is too early to tell, the initial signs are that our article is not generating a banker backlash against the program.

Another disingenuous response. He doesn’t know how the financial community will react, but he can be assured that the terrorist network is working hard on figuring out new ways to transfer money now that they know with certainty and particularity how we were tracing the old transfers. Further, allies across the globe must now know that no matter how legal the level of cooperation extended us in our hunt for terrorists, there is no guarantee of secrecy because the New York Times will publish anything and everything they can discover under the standard articulated here.

By the way, we heard similar arguments against publishing last year’s reporting on the NSA eavesdropping program. We were told then that our article would mean the death of that program. We were told that telecommunications companies would ‘” if the public knew what they were doing ‘” withdraw their cooperation. To the best of my knowledge, that has not happened. While our coverage has led to much public debate and new congressional oversight, to the best of our knowledge the eavesdropping program continues to operate much as it did before. Members of Congress have proposed to amend the law to put the eavesdropping program on a firm legal footing. And the man who presided over it and defended it was handily confirmed for promotion as the head of the CIA.

Is Mr. Keller aware of how absurd this argument is? The NSA story’s harm was not in triggering a debate, but in alerting terrorists to what we were intercepting. That story’s impact like this new breach of the national interest doesn’t harm anyone if all it leads to is a dust up in the media and a debate in the Congress.

What matters is how the stories affect terrorist behavior. That’s the sole and only question, and now we get to Mr. Keller’s long delayed response to it.

A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported ‘”indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department ‘” that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.

The avalanche of criticism directed at the Times is not half-hearted, and it is almost completely prompted by the assertion of the paper’s right to publish anything it wants combined with the possibility of helping the terrorists.

At a minimum, terrorists now familiar with the captured colleagues who were discovered through this program will study what those terrorists did and take pains not to use the same financial systems.

Other terrorists will simply note that what they might have thought secure is not. This is “pretty elemental stuff,” I know, but Mr. Keller can either believe terrorists are smart or they are stupid, but not both when it suits him.

If they are stupid, they now have a front page warning. If they are smart, every detail advances their ability to defense our efforts to catch them.

I can appreciate that other conscientious people could have gone through the process I’ve outlined above and come to a different conclusion. But nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues.

I don’t believe him, and there is no reason to believe him. The paper has been waging a war on the war and on the Adminsitration for years, so it has no credibility when it comes to arguing its good intentions.

What matters though is the statement that “other conscientious people” could have reached a different decision.

In fact, they did. The Congresses and the presidents of the past have passsed laws about what is classified and who can release it. They didn’t include the editor of the New York Times in the group that can make national security decisions. Mr. Keller decided he would risk the national security of the United States and the lives of its citizens. He has done so before and will no doubt do so again.

Thanks for writing.

Bill Keller

This incredibly weak response tells us that Bill Keller will not be responding to interview requests, at least not from any critic of the paper’s decision. He doesn’t have an argument. He doesn’t have any defense other than his position as editor of a once great newspaper.


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