NEWS

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July 5, 2006

The press and the government

There has been a lot of hoopla over the disclosure that the US government was legally monitoring international financial transactions (the original story is here). I would really like to say that the NYTimes (and the Washington Post, LA Times, and WSJ, which also published the same front page story on the same day) was correct in publishing this, but I'm not really sure about that. The strongest argument thus far has been that this was, quite simply, a legal program (making it unlike the torture and NSA wiretapping scandals). The only response I’ve heard is that everyone knew about it anyways. I don't think this really holds because first, why would so many national newspapers bother publishing this on the front page if it was just rehashing what everyone already knew. Second, by all accounts this seems to have been an extremely effective program (relative to everything else) and bringing added attention to it will make, on the margin, terrorist groups use other means we won’t be able to track. This is without a doubt, a bad thing. Third, across the board, we give terrorists far too much credit for being extremely advanced. I really don't know how informed these groups are, or how careful Saudi princes are with the millions they distribute to terrorist groups (remember a couple million for a Saudi prince is nothing), but I am willing to guess that in a couple of cases we are dealing with pretty inept people trying to do terrible things. Making this such big news doesn't help the US government stop that.But, my problem with this whole deal is that the administration has made such a big deal about the publication of these kinda-secret secrets. First, if drawing attention to this program is bad for the war on terror, then why has the administration made even bigger news out of it by attacking the newspapers that published them? Wouldn't the program be better off if they just ignored it? I mean, a story dominating the airwaves for a week is a lot worse than a story that made it into a couple of newspapers no one actually reads. And on top of that, why did the administration decide to go on the offensive in just this case? Why was there next to nothing after the publication of the illegal NSA wiretapping program? Especially considering that a lot fewer people knew that was going on than the financial monitoring scheme?The answer to all those questions? Because, this is nothing but politics as usual. The President went on the offensive not because he was upset about the setback suffered in the war on terror, but because he could stick it to the NYTimes and prop up his polling numbers by going after every conservative’s favorite newspaper. And, in the process he gets to highlight how great of a job he is doing in the war on terror, how the war on terror is a very serious thing (cue the same "we are a nation at war" speech we heard from 9/2001 to 2005), and that, now, he is fighting the war on terror legally! While their might be victims here, that is not what is pushing the Republican response to this story. The NYTimes was filling its appropriate role by publishing these secrets. It filled that role poorly in doing so, but I'm glad that it has finally started doing it at all (after it basically took 9/2001 to 2005 off). I just wish the White House, Republicans, and pundits would concede that a strong press is an important thing, that publishing this might have been a mistake, but that doesn't mean the President has the right to keep everything he deems effective and legal from us. Especially considering how he has a knack for finding whatever the hell he wants legal, legal.