Some of my best friends are journalists

Posted: Jun 29, 2006 12:01 AM
Some of my best friends are journalists

I have been a journalist for nearly two decades.

Journalism, as the late Michael Kelly, is a craft and an honorable one.

But the journalism nation is made up of many tribes, and some of them have declared war on the global war on terror and on the Bush Administration. Two of them in particular –the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (the “Times Two”) crossed a line last week that had only previously been crossed by the former, and then only in the past six months: the knowing publication of secrets, the release of which was not only illegal –that has happened often in our history—but which obviously could possibly assist terrorists in eluding capture.

At least two members of the Times Two staffs have gone on record as admitting that the publication was motivated by competitive pressures.

Eric Lichtblau, one of two New York Times reporters who wrote the story on June 23 detailing the country’s use of the SWIFT system to track terrorist financing, told Editor & Publisher that “I don’t think we could reasonably be accused of moving too quickly…We waited so long that the competition caught up with us.”

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, told me in an wide-ranging interview on the story that all thought of restraint vanished when the New York Times posted its story. This despite the fact that McManus, in response to my question whether it was possible that “the story will in fact help terrorists elude capture,” McManus replied: “[I]t is conceivable.”

Mr. Lichtblau told Editor & Publisher:

that in each case the newspaper believed that the information it was reporting would not put anyone in harm's way. ‘I think we came down on the same side in both questions,’ he said of the two stories. ‘That this is not giving away information that is tangibly helping terrorists know what they don't already know.’

You cannot balance what you have not weighed, and you cannot weigh what you cannot measure.

Neither of the Times Two possesses the capacity, background, experience or learning to judge the extent of the assistance they have rendered terrorists.

No “expert” they could consult would be in a position to contradict the government’s strong assertions of the danger they were putting innocents in via their recklessness.

Bill Keller, leader of the New York Times, asserted in a Sunday letter to his readers, that “A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way.”

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Snow, who had met with Keller, fired back in a letter, that “Your charge that our efforts to convince The New York Times not to publish were "half-hearted" is incorrect and offensive. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In other words, Snow branded Keller a liar, as only lies are that far from the truth.

The Los Angeles Times’ Dean Baquet also published an apologia, but one that was flatly contradicted in many aspects by the interview McManus had given to me.

The picture that has emerged after a week is of two for-profit newspapers, eager for Pulitizers and aware of the other’s hunt for a headline, disregarding the urgent arguments of senior government officials and running a story on a program only dimly if at all understood by some (and by no stretch of the imagination all) terrorists, the result of which is to alert the world and even the below-average-intelligence killer of one key way the United States tracks them.

The Indonesian master terrorist Hambali was captured through the SWIFT program. He was apprehended in August of 2003, months after a general commitment to following the money was announced and even some obscure references to SWIFT had made their way into print, proving that even if you know the city is looking for speeders, it doesn’t mean every scofflaw knows where the speed traps and cameras are located.

The impossibility of these career scribblers really comprehending what damage they were doing is obvious, and it leads us to the error that has propelled the Times Two over the cliff: False pride.

These teams of journalists have somehow persuaded themselves that their undergraduate educations and their frequent flyer balances have transformed them into wise and learned assayers of truth. How laughable. None has ever held a security clearance. Publicly available bios assure us that Keller, Baquet, McManus et al are simple products of a closed culture of liberal newsrooms, where travel is presumed to bring knowledge and reporting understanding.

The biggest fraud in this story is the suggestion that Keller et al actually understand counterterrorism, the terror network, and the operation of SWIFT. The casual acknowledgment by McManus that assistance to the terrorists via publication was “conceivable,” was shocking, but not really as shocking as the arrogant dismissal by Eric Lichtblau of the government’s claims of risk. Lichtblau, a 1987 graduate of Cornell, is out on the speaker’s circuit making bucks off of his claims to know what the government is up to, but his resume is two decades of asking questions and writing up competing accounts of the truth. His schtick appears to be to minimize every concern that gets in the way of his paycheck. Here’s how the Cornell Daily Sun wrote up one of his speeches:

Lichtblau feels that "the fear of compromising national security is a real one," he recognizes irrational limitations in the attitude that the United States cannot risk publicizing anything that could possibly help the enemy. "By that standard," he said, "Pentagon reporters will tell you that you might think twice about publishing weather reports in Baghdad because they could conceivably help insurgents plan their attacks." Lichtblau may be a wonderful man and a superb writer/reporter.

But he’s dismissing the general and widespread recognition that the information war is everywhere and ongoing. He is building a career as a revealer of secrets, comfortably secure in the knowledge that it will be impossible to pin any specific terrorist attack on his stories, even though as the Cornell Daily Sun noted that

[h]itting closer to home for Lichtblau, a copy of a story the reporter had written about how easy it was for undercover agents to gain access to supposedly secure departments in the federal government was found translated into Arabic in an Al Qaeda terror den.

For the first time in American history, major media outlets have published classified information that they have been warned will directly assist our enemies. They did so having concluded –on a basis undisclosed to the public—that the dangers were either overstated or non-existent.

There is no stopping such recklessness except by locating the oath-breaking criminals who betray secrets.

But there is no honor in endangering Americans, and no pose of world-weary knowledge will dress up scribblers as sages, or perfume their low deeds with any thing except the odor of spoiled goods.