According to Tony Fratto, Treasury's Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, he first contacted the Times some two months ago. He had heard Times reporters were asking questions about the highly classified program involving Swift, an international banking consortium that has cooperated with the U.S. to follow the money making its way to the likes of al Qaeda or Hezbollah. Mr. Fratto went on to ask the Times not to publish such a story on grounds that it would damage this useful terror-tracking method.Read the whole thing. The editors argue that NYT is trying to tie itself to WSJ because the latter has more credibility on these issues. They suggest that readers will have to make the ultimate determination as to whether WSJ erred by publishing its SWIFT story last week. The WSJ editors, I would argue, do a nice job of distinguishing themselves from NYT, particularly Bill Keller and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Neverthess, WSJ might not have had to respond in this fashion had they waited a bit before publishing their SWIFT story. This Burkean post has links to my previous entries on the topic.
Sometime later, Secretary John Snow invited Times Executive Editor Bill Keller to his Treasury office to deliver the same message. Later still, Mr. Fratto says, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the leaders of the 9/11 Commission, made the same request of Mr. Keller. Democratic Congressman John Murtha and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte also urged the newspaper not to publish the story.
The Times decided to publish anyway, letting Mr. Fratto know about its decision a week ago Wednesday. The Times agreed to delay publishing by a day to give Mr. Fratto a chance to bring the appropriate Treasury official home from overseas. Based on his own discussions with Times reporters and editors, Mr. Fratto says he believed "they had about 80% of the story, but they had about 30% of it wrong." So the Administration decided that, in the interest of telling a more complete and accurate story, they would declassify a series of talking points about the program. They discussed those with the Times the next day, June 22.
Around the same time, Treasury contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information. Mr. Simpson has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift, and it is a common practice in Washington for government officials to disclose a story that is going to become public anyway to more than one reporter. Our guess is that Treasury also felt Mr. Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times, which was pushing a violation-of-privacy angle; on our reading of the two June 23 stories, he did.
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.
Some argue that the Journal should have still declined to run the antiterror story. However, at 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. What Journal editors did know is that they had senior government officials providing news they didn't mind seeing in print. If this was a "leak," it was entirely authorized.
Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the Administration asked us not to? Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not. Mr. Keller's argument that the terrorists surely knew about the Swift monitoring is his own leap of faith. The terror financiers might have known the U.S. could track money from the U.S., but they might not have known the U.S. could follow the money from, say, Saudi Arabia. The first thing an al Qaeda financier would have done when the story broke is check if his bank was part of Swift.
Just as dubious is the defense in a Times editorial this week 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.
The Times itself said as much in a typically hectoring September 24, 2001, editorial "Finances of Terror": "Much more is needed, including stricter regulations, the recruitment of specialized investigators and greater cooperation with foreign banking authorities." Isn't the latter precisely what the Swift operation is?
Whether the Journal News department would agree with us in this or other cases, we can't say. We do know, however, that Journal editors have withheld stories at the government's request in the past, notably during the Gulf War when they learned that a European company that had sold defense equipment to Iraq was secretly helping the Pentagon. Readers have to decide for themselves, based on our day-to-day work, whether they think Journal editors are making the correct publishing judgments.
Friday, June 30, 2006
"Not Everything is Fit to Print": The Wall Street Journal Defends its Editorial Policies
In Monday's post, Burkean Refections asked "Is the Wall Street Journal Equally Responsible for the SWIFT Disclosure?" It's apparently a question on the minds of many, especially since the New York Times has been using WSJ for some cover against the recriminations arising from its June 23 article. Today's lead WSJ editorial provides the answer. They note an important point --something careful newspaper readers likely recognize -- that WSJ editorial sections for news and opinion are separate enitities with different editors (and thus the WSJ's Review and Outlook editors had no hand in the paper's Friday article, "Treasury Tracks Financial Data in Secret Program"). Here's an excerpt from the editorial, beginning with some background:
Posted by Donald Douglas at 8:52 AM