Who made Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, the nation's classification czar? By running the nation's foremost newspaper, Keller gets to decide which secrets of the U.S. government are maintained and which aren't — and his default position is to expose them all.
This amounts to an extraordinary accretion of public power in the hands of an individual, and a self-interested individual at that. When he blows secrets, Keller gets more attention — and presumably more business — for his newspaper. It's a little like letting Bill Gates effectively set the nation's regulatory and antitrust policy, or the head of the ethanol-dependent agri-business Archer Daniels Midland determine our farm and energy policy (which actually happens — but that's another story). In any other instance but its own, the Times would excoriate this seepage of guardianship of the public trust from elected officials and civil servants to a private interest.
The Times published a long story the other day exposing a secret government program to track the international bank transfers of terrorist suspects. The story reported that the program is legal, effective and, as far as any Bush anti-terror initiative can be in the current poisonous environment, uncontroversial. Nonetheless, Keller defended its publication as "a matter of public interest." If the program had violated laws or allowed the government to riffle through the routine banking transactions of Americans (it doesn't on either count), Keller might have had a case. But there is nothing about the program that countervails the clear public interest in limiting terrorist financing.
Every time the press exposes a secret anti-terror program, the media's apologists shrug it off as no big deal, since terrorists already know that they are being tracked and monitored. But clearly not all terrorists knew that the U.S. was tracking cross-border transactions, say, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. Otherwise, the program wouldn't have helped net a couple of major terrorist figures in Southeast Asia, or figured in terrorist prosecutions. Now they know.
On the one hand, the implicit contention of the Times is that the public almost never has an interest in secrecy, in having classified matters kept that way. On the other, it jealously guards the identity of its secret sources and wants its ability to do so in defiance of governmental investigations written into law. Here is the ultimate arrogation of public power — the Times demanding legal protection for its own secrets so it can better expose the government's.
This attitude reflects what is, in the minds of the members of the press, an ongoing crisis of legitimacy of the U.S. government, going back to Watergate and the FBI and CIA scandals of the 1970s. It was these abuses that created the decaying, but still regnant Imperial Press, which now reflexively adopts an adversarial stance toward our government even when it is acting in an effective way, fully within its power and abusing no one. The closest the Times could come to a hint of scandal in the financial-tracking program was that "one person had been removed from the operation for conducting a search considered inappropriate." This is hardly wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr.
As the pendulum swung toward media power in the 1970s, it should swing away from it now. Yes, the press has a role in exposing government abuses, which will sometimes involve reporting on secrets. Yes, the press deserves deference in keeping with the First Amendment. But it cannot be a government unto itself. The U.S. government should reassert itself by vigorously pursuing the leakers who broke the law to describe the tracking program to the Times.
The reporters who wrote about it, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, should be subpoenaed, and if they refuse to reveal their sources, they should go to jail. There, they can reflect on why their secrets are so much more sacred than those of the people of the United States, as represented by their duly constituted government.