Yesterday Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief appeared on my program to explain his paper’s decision to assist terrorists in eluding capture. Today the paper’s editor, Dean Baquet, publsihes this defense: “Why we ran the story.”
MANY READERS have been sharply critical of our decision to publish an article Friday on the U.S. Treasury Department’s program to secretly monitor worldwide money transfers in an effort to track terrorist financing.
They have sent me sincere and powerful expressions of their disappointment in our newspaper, and they deserve an equally thoughtful and honest response.
The deception begins here. How many readers? Why not post all of their letters so the readers can see? How many subscriptions have been lost?
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government’s assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion 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.
This statement is bluntly contradicted by Doyle McManus’ statement to me yesterday that no such balancing occured once word arrived that the New York Times was publishing the story. Here’s the McManus quote:
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.
Back to Baquet:
We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department’s program did not pose that threat.
Again, McManus repeatedly allowed to me as to how the release of the information could help terrorists and hurt counterterrorism. That’s a threat to human life. One exchange with McManus:
HH: Is it possible, in your view, Doyle McManus, that the story will in fact help terrorists elude capture?
DM: It is conceivable, yeah….
Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.
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.
The Baquet assertion that “close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism” is only squared with the McManus account by inferring that (1) the people Baquet is referencing were “off the record” and (2) that McManus while discussing this very issue with me didn’t bring those off-the-record people up. In short, to believe the Times we have to discount all the people McManus is referring to, and rely on the Harry the Rabbitt sources Baquet points to.
In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.
Again, the McManus account is that “in the end” the New York Times was going with the story so we were too. No balancing, just a fear of not keeping up with Bill Keller’s ethical spin cycle.
Some readers have seen our decision to publish this story as an attack on the Bush administration and an attempt to undermine the war on terror.
We are not out to get the president.
Only a fool would believe this given the Los Angeles Times’ endless and almost unbroken war on the war over the past three years. And if Baquet believes it, he’s completely out of touch with his paper’s staff and their agenda journalism. He’s certainly out of touch with McManus, so anything is possible.
This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists. We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda’s role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment.
So what? This is special pleading, and if if was a Los Angeles police officer accused of brutality or a corrupt public official arguing their long record of service, the Times would rightly dismiss such posturing as beside the point. We are talking specifically about a decision to publish classified material which —by the admission of the paper’s D.C. bureau chief— could have helped terrorists elude capture. Changing the subject doesn’t change the seriousness of the paper’s error or its potential consequences.
But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That’s the role of the press in our democracy.
The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost or how much we are criticized. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” That’s the edict we followed.
Again, I quote McManus to Baquet:
HH: Sure. Do you agree, Doyle McManus, that the press has no exemption from the national security statutes?
DM: I do agree with that.
For an extended treatment of this basic truth which Baquet ignores, read Professor Eastman’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. Apparently a proclamation of press freedom is the last refuge of an editor caught in the anger of a public that generally believes his paper to have compromised the national security, and to have done so contrary to law.
This was a tough call for me, as I’m sure it was for the editors of other papers that chose to publish articles on the subject.
So tough that you didn’t get on a plane and go to D.C. for the talks? From McManus:
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.
Yeah, he lost a lot of sleep I am sure.
But history tells us over and over that the nation’s founders were right in pushing the press into this role. President Kennedy persuaded the press not to report the Bay of Pigs planning. He later said he regretted this, that he might have called it off had someone exposed it.
Ah, the Bay of Pigs. This must be what they teach editors at the first meeting when they are inducted into the secret society of the guardians of America: When in trouble, bring up the Bay of Pigs.
History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish. No one believes, in retrospect, that there was any true reason to withhold the Pentagon Papers, although the government fought vigorously to keep them from being published by the New York Times and the Washington Post. As Justice Hugo Black put it in that case: “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.”
Here Baquet reveals his ignorance of the Pentagon Papers decision. Begin with the fact that the case’s four dissenters are on record as not merely agreeing with the government’s right to withhold the papers, but even in the more radical proposition that a prior restraint was authorized. And serious students of the case understand that the objection made during the war –compromising methods and sources– would certainly not have survived long after the war’s end, but Baquet’s cavalier treatment of the facts of that case again raises the issue of whether newspapermen who lead busy but not particularly broad or learned lives are in a position to have the factual or experiential backgrounds to make judgments such as these. The triumph of cliches doesn’t matter when it is just newsroom posturing and idiot editorials. It has grave consequences when national security secrets are being paraded in an age of terror.
Baquet’s closing aside on the Pentagon Papers case –an “everbody knows” wave of the hand– demonstrates he really doesn’t get out much or read much.
I don’t expect all of our readers to agree with my call. But understand that it was one taken with serious reflection and supported by much history.
It is Mr. Baquet’s misfortune to have published this defense within hours of an interview with his senior man in D.C. in which that man provides ample evidence that this assertion about “serios reflection” is false.
Also false –and unsupported by a single example– is the appeal to history. There is no parallel in the history of the major American press to this intentional injury to our national security intrests, no previous examples outside of this war where the press published stories it was warned could assist our enemies in eluding capture, no previous instance of indifference to the safety of Americans.
Here’s how I closed the interview with McManus:
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.
Mr. McManus chose to hear Sgt. Boggs’ objection in a narrow way, allowing him to dodge the responsibility Boggs is assigning him. So does Baquet in his piece. So has Bill Keller and various apologists.
But the reactions of Americans across the country is one of disgust. The media elite crossed a line, and its indifference to the threat of terrorism defined it in a way that a thousand columns will not undo.