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The Media and the Terror War

Prepared by: Michael Moran
July 3, 2006

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When should the media keep what it learns about the workings of the American government to itself? To sharpen the horns of this dilemma further, consider the specific context of the debate today: Should the New York Times have published its investigative piece revealing details of the Bush administration's ability to scrutinize many of the world's financial transactions? Two other papers, the Wall Street Journal (Subscription Only) and the Los Angeles Times, also published versions of the story. The New York Times, however, led the way, and lays out why it dismissed national security concerns and published. "Terrorist groups would have had to be fairly credulous not to suspect that they would be subject to scrutiny if they moved money around through international wire transfers," the paper's editorial concluded.

Critics see it quite differently. As the National Review Online puts it, "National security be damned. There are Pulitzers to be won." President Bush termed it "disgraceful" (WashPost). Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) ordered a "damage assessment" on how the story might have set back counterterrorism efforts (CBS), and less sober lawmakers suggested the espionage act be used to charge the Times with treason.

The Journal, whose editorial page is a bastion of support for the Bush administration, agrees with the critics. "Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the Administration asked us not to? Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not." The Times, however, argues its decision to publish the bank surveillance story comes against the backdrop of overreaching by the executive branch—a charge given new impetus by the Supreme Court's Thursday decision regarding Guantanamo Bay detainees in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Since the 9/11 attacks, the Times says, "the Bush administration has taken the necessity of heightened vigilance against terrorism and turned it into a rationale for an extraordinarily powerful executive branch, exempt from the normal checks and balances of our system of government." Retorts the Journal: "Mr. Keller's argument that the terrorists surely knew about the Swift monitoring is his own leap of faith ... We suspect that the Times has tried to use the Journal as its political heatshield precisely because it knows our editors have more credibility on these matters."

As the two great poles of American newspaperdom argue and reflect upon the history of stories that pitted the press against politicians (NYT), another related issue—the secret wiretapping of domestic phone calls by the National Security Agency, is also bubbling along. The issue is framed in this Backgrounder by Lionel Beehner. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared the NSA program "in flat violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" (MSNBC), a Cold War-era secrecy act also known as FISA. Legal experts differ on the legality of the program, but generally agree the White House is aggressively staving off oversight from other branches of government.

For additional reading, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales laid out the administration's position on NSA wiretaps in a speech in January. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers a guide to the First Amendment, Rep. Jane Harmon (D-CA), ranking minority member on the House intelligence panel, spoke in March on the wiretapping issue at CFR. The National Security Archive at The George Washington University offers these resources on an earlier such battle, the 1971 effort by the Nixon administration to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers.

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