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June 26, 2006
Keller Offers Platitudes Rather Than Reasons

Bill Keller, having fled the scene according to his office as soon as the New York Times published the latest national-security revelations from Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, offers his readers a written explanation rather than give any interviews about his decision to reveal classified tactics. Unfortunately for Times readers, he doesn't offer much in the way of explanation in his open letter. Keller manages to dodge the real questions while actually blaming conservative critics for making this a bigger story than he imagined when he green-lighted it for publication.

The pushback against the right comes as his first excuse:

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.)

One has to go far before seeing a more disingenuous argument than this from any publisher or editor. It insults the intelligence, because Keller would have you believe that a front-page story in the New York Times would never have garnered any attention had it not been for conservative bloggers and talk-show hosts. Granted, if Keller remains in charge of the Times it may eventually come to that. However, Keller's argument appears to be that criticism of publication of classified material creates a larger national-security problem than the publication itself.

He then offers the standard platitudes about the role of a free press in democracy, and the heavy responsibility that he felt in making this decision. What he doesn't explain at all is the competing interests of the public right to know and the government responsibility for security, a decision that really shouldn't rest at the Times in any case. Oh, he thinks he explains it, but he leaves out a critical point:

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.

Rather than discuss the non-secret fact that the government has infiltrated global financial systems to track terrorists -- a fact known by even the most detached American for the past four years -- but that the Times revealed the specific tactics used to track financial transactions. This would be akin to printing planned troop movements during a battle. It tips the enemy to our efforts against them, and allows them to take steps to avoid our reach.

Evem more to the point, Keller admits in this paragraph that the program he revealed is both legal and effective. Since the only real news value in blowing a covert operation is when it is either illegal or detrimental, the mind boggles at Keller's admission. If the Swift penetration broke no laws, which Risen and Lichtblau admitted, and effective, as the capture of Hamali demonstrated, then why should the New York Times publish the tactics on its front page? How can he argue that he balanced the news value against national security when a legal and effective covert operation has almost no news value whatsoever outside of sheer prurience?

As Wizbang points out, the entire Keller argument boils down to this:

Dear Reader:

1) We have no reason to believe the program was illegal in any way.
2) We have every reason to believe it was effective at catching terrorists.
3) We ran the story anyway, screw you.

I would add a fourth bullet point stating that the New York Times thinks its readers suffer from some form of brain damage if Keller thinks this letter explains any of the issues raised by their publication of this material. They have revealed the specific tactics of an effective covert program during a time of war, a program that has actually caught terrorists, and admits that its revelation neither shows it to break laws or threaten civil liberties. They sold us out for the money and used the excuse of a public right to know, the same excuse that gives us paparazzi shots of half-naked celebrities on the covers of supermarket tabloids. That is the Bill Keller legacy to journalism and the New York Times.

Who would have thought we'd get nostalgic for Howell Raines?

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has a substantive roundup of reaction to Keller's letter. CQ readers should read Patterico's transcript of a radio interview between LA Times columnist Patt Morrison and Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus on their decision to run the story concurrently with Keller and the NYT. Money quote:

MCMANUS: ... So, it’s — this is a broader issue than an individual operation. In any case, we take the question seriously of whether our disclosure of this policy change and this program will be to the disadvantage of legitimate government efforts against terrorism, and we have to weigh that against the legitimate public interest in knowing whether the government is changing the rules, knowing whether the government is operating within the law, um, knowing what the government is up to.”

It does not fall to the Times to make that decision, especially when no laws have been broken -- as the NYT explicitly reported. The government (all three branches) , by the way, makes the rules; we elect them to do that. We don't elect the LAT or the NYT to arrogantly decide whether those laws have value or not. If they change the rules, we elect them to do that, too. As both newspapers reported endlessly in the wake of 9/11, a lot of rules needed changing in order to effectively protect us against the terrorists that want to kill us.

Didn't we demand that of Congress and the White House? If so, why did the Fourth Estate decide to blow covert tactics that worked within the law to do just that?

UPDATE II: I should have pointed people to the best takedown of Keller thus far, not surprisingly by Hugh Hewitt. My good friend Scott Johnson at Power Line has an excellent rebuttal as well. Don't miss either one.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 26, 2006 7:31 AM

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