Tensions between the government and the press are nothing new. But it's not every day that an administration's supporters call for executing the editor of a major newspaper.
That is what happened in June, when the San Francisco talk show host Melanie Morgan, a frequent guest on Fox News and MSNBC, declared that New York Times Editor in Chief Bill Keller should be convicted of treason for a story his newspaper had published. The article had revealed information about a Treasury Department program that monitors international financial transactions for terrorist connections.
"If he were to be tried and convicted of treason, yes, I would have no problem with him being sent to the gas chamber," Morgan told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, never to be outdone, opined in her syndicated column, "I prefer a firing squad, but I'm open to a debate on the method of execution." In Congress, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) urged the Justice Department to prosecute The New York Times for "treasonous" action, though he stopped short of suggesting the death penalty.
In fact, the fantasy of Bill Keller in the dock is just that: a fantasy. Ask Gabriel Schoenfeld, the Commentary editor who had argued earlier that the editors could theoretically be prosecuted under the so-called Comint statute for disclosing the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. Even he acknowledged that a similar prosecution for the banking story would be even less feasible.
The White House itself never called for criminal charges, but it did rail against the Times for running the story. President George W. Bush proclaimed that "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."
This particular program, which used the database of financial transactions kept by the Belgium-based Swift banking consortium, was not illegal, and it was subject to congressional oversight. But it's far from clear that the disclosure jeopardized an anti-terror program.
A June 29 Times report pointed out, self-servingly but convincingly, that the administration and the Treasury Department had themselves trumpeted their efforts to follow the Al Qaeda money trail and their successes in that quest. In 2004, the story noted, none other than Rep. King convened a hearing at which "Treasury officials described at length their efforts, assisted by financial institutions, to trace terrorists" money."
Queried about this contradiction, King told the Times that it was one thing to let the terrorists know they were being tracked and another to let them know "the details.""
That seems like a thin line on which to build a criminal case. International Herald Tribune foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen wrote, while defending the principle of the press as a check on government power, that publishing the story may have marginally hindered the task of tracking terrorists: "The article probably made it less likely that any plotter would do the particularly dumb thing of using Swift to transfer money." Perhaps"though by the same token, the outcry over the article made it far more likely that it would get the terrorists" attention. (Are dumb terrorists faithful readers of The New York Times")
What's more, as State Department official Anthony Wayne noted at 2004 congressional hearings, discouraging terrorists from using the banking system for money transfers may be on balance a good thing, forcing them to shift to "other less reliable and more cumbersome methods, such as cash couriers."
Tellingly, while The New York Times bore the brunt of official and unofficial conservative ire over the publication of the Swift banking surveillance story, it was not the only "guilty" party. On the same day the story appeared in the Times, it was also featured on the front page of two other newspapers: the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. The L.A. paper is widely regarded as liberal, so it was easy for conservative critics to paint it and The New York Times with the same brush. But the Journal is hardly a bastion of the vast left-wing conspiracy, even if its news division does not march in political lockstep with its conservative editorial page.
In a June 29 Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan gave passing mention to the Journal's role: "Based on the evidence that has become public so far, the Journal, like the Times, and the Los Angeles Times, seems to me to have made the wrong call." Yet she insisted that "it is the New York Times, of all papers involved, that has most forgotten the mission": to get the story but "also be a citizen."
The next day, the Journal's editorial board claimed that the Journal only published information it was given by the government after it became clear that the Times was going ahead with the story anyway. But an e-mail from Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib to Editor and Publisher contradicted the editorial page's version, saying that "we and The Times were both chasing the story and crossed the finish line at the same time." (The Journal's news and editorial pages frequently seem to be entirely independent entities.)
The Times may indeed have been the leader in the Swift story. But it clearly became the main target because it's a politically convenient one. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going poorly for reasons that have nothing to do with the blabbermouth press, the pointy-headed liberal media make a good whipping boy. Columnist Michael Barone, normally not anyone's idea of a fire-breather, opened a June 26 column"run on the RealClearPolitics site under the title, "The New York Times at War With America?" with this salvo: "Why do they hate us? No, I'm not talking about Islamofascist terrorists the "they" I'm referring to are the editors of The New York Times."
The anti-Times hysteria reached a reductio ad absurdum when, on June 30, the New York Times travel section published a piece called "Weekends With the President's Men." The story described the village of St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld both have vacation homes. The article, which included photos of these homes, was greeted with howls of outrage from the right wing of the blogosphere, with Michelle Malkin, Powerline's John Hinderaker, and FrontPage's David Horowitz leading the charge. The Times, Malkin and others claimed, was doing nothing short of purposely or at least recklessly exposing Cheney and Rumsfeld to an Al Qaeda assassination plot.
Horowitz's article in FrontPage was headlined, "The NY Times points cranks, radicals, al-Qaeda operatives and would be assassins to the summer homes of Cheney and Rumsfeld." It opened with the claim that the article was "an apparent retaliation for criticism of its disclosure of classified intelligence to America's enemies."
In a post titled "A GPS for assassins?," Hinderaker generously wrote, "Frankly, it strikes me as over-the-top to believe that even the Times wants Rumsfeld and Cheney assassinated," but nonetheless gave plenty of space to Horowitz's and Malkin's fulminations on the controversy.
When a spokeswoman for Rumsfeld confirmed that the photos had been taken and published with his permission, and a spokesman for the Secret Service flatly stated that the article was not a security threat, Malkin was not appeased: "What news value and journalistic end was served by publishing the Cheney/Rumsfeld vacation home piece and the accompanying photo" "Because Rumsfeld gave permission" may cut it with the moonbats and fairweather privocrats. Not with me."
It's good to know that even if Rumsfeld is lax in looking out for his own safety when it's threatened by the Times, Michelle Malkin and other conservatives are on the job.