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New York Times Draws Criticism over Intelligence Stories

July 5, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Among the many issues raised by recent revelations about the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror, one age-old question has re-emerged: What should the press reveal about secret government wartime operations?

On Friday June 23, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post all published stories on the monitoring of terrorists’ financial dealings through an international banking clearinghouse called SWIFT, the Society For Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

The administration had tried to persuade The New York Times, in particular, not to run the story. The Times went ahead anyway, and has since found itself castigated by the administration and others.

President Bush last week:

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also last week, congressional Republicans secured a non-binding resolution condemning The Times and other papers for publishing details of the classified financial tracking program. In an interview with the NewsHour’s Kwame Holman, Arizona Republican Representative J.D. Hayworth blasted the paper.

REP. J.D. HAYWORTH (R), Arizona: Given the nature of this conflict and given the nature of our enemies, it is counterproductive, to say the least, for The Times to engage in this. Really, the more accurate term is, it’s simply outrageous. And, fundamentally, it’s dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: The editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller, and the editor of The L.A. Times, Dean Baquet, responded to the criticisms over the weekend in an unusual joint op-ed, in which they explained how, why and when they report on sensitive material.

And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest defended the disclosure of classified information. Priest won a Pulitzer Prize this year for stories about a CIA network of secret overseas prisons for terror suspects.

DANA PRIEST, The Washington Post: Every time there’s a national security story they don’t want published, they say it will damage national security, but they — for one thing, they have never given us any proof.

DANA PRIEST: The point is, the tension between the media and the government is longstanding. And that’s to be expected. And, in fact, all these — many of the people getting up to lambaste the media now are also people that we talk to with our stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: The New York Times came in for a similar round of criticism in December, when it revealed the existence of a secret National Security Agency program that monitored Americans’ international phone calls without warrants.

Reevaluating a judgement call

Bill Keller
The New York Times
It's a judgment call that we take very seriously, that follows a lot of reporting, a lot of discussion, both within the paper and with experts outside of the paper.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, to look at all this, we're joined by Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, and Admiral Bobby Inman. He served as director of the National Security Agency under President Carter and deputy director of central intelligence under President Reagan. He now holds the centennial chair in national policy at the University of Texas.

Mr. Keller, I would like to start with you.

What is the threshold test as to whether you will publish a story on a secret government program?

BILL KELLER, Executive Editor, The New York Times: Well, there's not a formula or a kind of neat metric for it.

It's really a judgment call. But it's -- you know, it's a judgment call that we take very seriously, that follows a lot of reporting, a lot of discussion, both within the paper and with experts outside of the paper. Sometimes, the calls are extremely easy. And we have reporters who are embedded with soldiers in Iraq, for example, who have daily access to operational intelligence. We just don't put that stuff in the paper, of course.

Others are harder. I mean, when we reject a plea to withhold information, it gets a lot of attention, as it is now. What gets less attention are the many occasions when we do withhold information. And I have been party to several of those in the time I have been in this job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Admiral Inman, you disagreed with the particular decision to publish the SWIFT story. What specifically -- where specifically did The Times and others go wrong in that one?

ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN, Former CIA Deputy Director: They can tell the story and not do great damage, as long as they protect how we are acquiring the information.

The fact that we were -- had foreign collaboration, that we were getting detailed information doesn't do a lot of damage. In fact, in many cases, it does no damage.

It's the precise details on the sources and methods that do the damage. And, you know, I have seen some self-serving op-eds that say, well, gee, they already knew they were being listened to. It's just not valid. And I can tell you that from hundreds of experiences.

People only change the way they communicate when they are explicitly alerted that they are being listened to.

But there's another point here. And that's the challenge of getting friends, foreign governments, to cooperate with us on targets where it's extraordinarily hard to get any information at all.

And, from my own past experience, I suspect the immediate reaction from many of our friendly collaborators will once again being, the U.S. can't keep any secrets. Of course, the challenge here is, The Times didn't dig the story out. They were given the story by people who were disaffected.

And the challenge that the editor has is how much of that story he can use without the risk of doing national security.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Keller, what's the response?

BILL KELLER: Well, hold it a second.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

BILL KELLER: First of all, I'm not sure how Admiral Inman knows how we got the story, but the story cited more than 20 sources, and it was put together over the course of several months. It wasn't handed to us and uncritically replicated in the pages of The New York Times. That's one thing.

Second of all, I don't believe that there was anything about sources and methods in this story that would be news to anybody, except, perhaps, readers of the newspaper and members of Congress.

What was new in the story was the scope of our efforts to monitor international financial transactions, and the fact that this was being done with minimal congressional oversight, like a number of the other post-9/11 programs.

ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN: There's a fundamental...

BILL KELLER: We weighed very heavily and looked in excruciating detail at claims that this was not something that terrorists knew, that this would somehow be useful to terrorists.

And the fact is, you know, you can find more useful detail about what the Treasury is doing in the Treasury's own public briefings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Admiral Inman?

ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN: Of which -- to which the terrorists probably don't have access. But if it's the front page of The New York Times, they will.

And this presumption that people automatically know or probably know is at the heart of the problem.

Balancing government and media

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Mr. Keller, put it a different way that maybe expands this to other ways to look at other cases.

We often talk about the people's right to know. And you framed it that way in your op-ed. I think Admiral Inman is asking a question also about the need to know, the need to know how much detail or about a particular program. Now, how do you weigh that part of it?

BILL KELLER: Well, that is roughly the balancing act that you try to do, is this useful information?

I mean, our job, as news organizations, is to tell people how well their elected representatives are doing in the war on terror. That doesn't mean that we just tell them what they're doing wrong. It means we also try to take the measure of what they're doing that works.

So, you weigh what would be useful to citizens, voters, in appraising the performance of their government, against whether or not the release of this information would do any significant harm.

And I have been party to a number of decisions where I thought releasing the information could put lives at risk, and we haven't released that information in those cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: Admiral Inman, you were in the middle of these kinds of debates and issues in the past. Is there a way to do it, do you think, that balances the goals of both government and media?

ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN: Well, there was a collaborative that President Carter put in place, that President Reagan kept until I departed government, where editors would call 7:00, 7:30 in the evening, and ask, will it be damaging if we say the following?

And I had to answer then, and, if it was not damaging, clear to run the story. If there was a way to take out a few lines and, in my judgment, make it less likely to be damaging, we did that. It was extraordinarily rare that I asked them to hold a story entirely. And, on those rare occasions, they did.

But both the administration and the editors have to be in a mind-set where protecting national security sources and methods -- I'm not talking about U.S. operations -- I'm talking about intelligence sources and methods.

And when there is a mind-set on both sides to try to limit damage, there are ways that work. But both sides have to be willing to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What -- so, what do you think about that, Mr. Keller?

BILL KELLER: I think Admiral Inman is describing precisely the procedure that we followed in the NSA eavesdropping investigation and in the story about the SWIFT banking program.

I -- it wasn't just a 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. phone call before publication. We were in conversations with officials of the administration for about two months. I spent an hour with the secretary of the treasury, and I had a long phone call with John Negroponte about this, listening to their arguments, pro and con, about publication of this story.

In end, you know, you have to make a judgment call. And -- and I think we would be abdicating our responsibility if we said we're going to take everything that the government tells us is a danger at face value.

The media as a target

Admiral Bobby Inman
Former CIA Deputy Director
The secretary of treasury, the director of national intelligence both made the case that this was extraordinarily sensitive. And the decision simply to dismiss that, on the judgment that we have a broader need, troubles me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Keller, what explains to you this storm, in particular aimed at The New York Times? Do you think that Americans -- a lot of Americans would probably be asking, what gives you, The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times, or any other paper, the right to decide what is not dangerous, for example, or what is in their interest?

BILL KELLER: They are indeed asking that question, and I think there's a good deal of legitimate concern and confusion about that question.

What gives us that right is the guys who wrote the Constitution. They had in mind a system whereby ordinary citizens and editors, amateurs, were entitled, under the basic law of the country, to second-guess the leadership of the country. That's a responsibility that weighs heavily on us and that we take very, very seriously.

And I don't know quite what the alternative would be, short of some kind of censorship, which, clearly, was not what the founders of the country had in mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Admiral Inman?

ADMIRAL BOBBY INMAN: Nor is it what I have in mind.

But I am troubled by the sense that there are no consequences for a decision to ignore advice from multiple people. If I understood correctly, the secretary of treasury, the director of national intelligence both made the case that this was extraordinarily sensitive. And the decision simply to dismiss that, on the judgment that we have a broader need, troubles me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Final response, Mr. Keller?

BILL KELLER: Well, we did not dismiss that. We really did not.

I mean, you know, three years ago, the same secretary of the treasury took a group of reporters from The Times and other papers on a six-day tour of the Middle East to look at the sensitive details of how hard they're working to track international financing of terrorism.

You know, it's OK, when it's public relations, to promote the success of the war on terror, but it's a breach of security when they don't want us to publish.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Bill Keller and Admiral Bobby Inman, thank you both very much.

BILL KELLER: Thank you.