Why leaks are bad
A week ago today, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times all reported on the Treasury's classified program tracking the financial dealings of terrorist outfits.
Today, the editorial board of the Journal defends itself against what it sees as the New York Times' attempts to co-opt Journal coverage of the Swift story for the purposes of making the Journal "its ideological wingman."
Fit and Unfit to Print
What are the obligations of the press in wartime?
President Bush, among others, has since assailed the press for revealing the program, and the Times has responded by wrapping itself in the First Amendment, the public's right to know and even The Wall Street Journal. We published a story on the same subject on the same day, and the Times has since claimed us as its ideological wingman. So allow us to explain what actually happened, putting this episode within the larger context of a newspaper's obligations during wartime.
We recount all this because more than a few commentators have tried to link the Journal and Times at the hip. On the left, the motive is to help shield the Times from political criticism. On the right, the goal is to tar everyone in the "mainstream media." But anyone who understands how publishing decisions are made knows that different newspapers make up their minds differently.
Now if certain key assertions are factually true, such as this from the Journal...
[A]t no point did Treasury officials tell us not to publish the information. And while Journal editors knew the Times was about to publish the story, Treasury officials did not tell our editors they had urged the Times not to publish.
... and this from Hugh Hewitt's recent interview of LA Times' Doyle McManus...
[W]hen 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.
... I don't see any way not to lay the blame for this entire fiasco at the feet of Bill Keller of the NYT.
Peggy Noonan put it this way, which strikes me as scathingly accurate:
The mission is to get the story, break through the forest to get to a clear space called news, and also be a citizen. It's not to be a certain kind of citizen, and insist everyone else be that kind of citizen, and also now and then break a story.
Forgetting the mission is a problem endemic in newsrooms now. [...] You become not journalistic and now and then political, but political and now and then journalistic.
It's sad. Though I guess if you're the Times you take comfort in the fact that even though you're not as important as you used to be, you're just as destructive as ever.
Look, I frequently write about my disgust with the NYT, an organization which, frankly, I loathe to the core for its arrogant belief they're a co-equal, unelected fourth branch of government, ultimately self-serving whether right or wrong. The Times manages to piss me off on a near daily basis. I'm also concerned over the Journal editorial staff's fetishizing of the Pentagon Papers case, which famously held that the government doesn't have the right of prior restraint regarding censorship. But I applaud their position that editors should recognize "not all news is fit to print" and should, in other words, excercise self restraint based on good judgement.
I come from inside of the intelligence community, and there you'll find another system that requires consciencious Americans to excercise self restraint. It's a robust system, carefully refined over the last century, designed to protect both national security and civil liberties. It also depends on the conscience of good men and women in order to work, and I'm offended when members of that community go outside the system to address their concerns, just as I am offended when the NYT publishes their blabbermouthing. Both are failures of good judgement. Both betray their obligations to the American Public.
From the Journal:
[A] Times editorial this week [protests] that "The Swift story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals." In this asymmetric war against terrorists, intelligence and financial tracking are the equivalent of troop movements. They are America's main weapons.
It's true. Effective intelligence-based anti-terrorism programs are essential. Mark Steyn said it best:
It's very hard to fight a terrorist war without intelligence. By definition, you can only win battles against terrorists pre-emptively — that's to say, you find out what they're planning to do next Thursday and you stop it cold on Wednesday. Capturing them on Friday while you're still pulling your dead from the rubble is poor consolation.
And effective intelligence operations require good judgement from both the intel community AND the news community. It's an honor system, pure and simple... and deadly serious.
The Journal is fighting to retain its honor in this matter. What's the NYT doing? Furthering its image as a collection of elite, self-righteous social engineers.
Now... if I had to pick a side... hmmmmmmmmmm.