Should the Fourth Estate decide National Security Issues?

It appears that both the NY Times and LA Times have deemed themselves the best arbiters for deciding if a secret government program to fight terrorism should be made public, stripping it of much of its usefullness.

From an AP article:

The editor of the LA Times had a similar attitude:

Here is the NY Times article and the LA Times article.

This Terrorist Financing Tracking Program does not look at ATM records and domestic transactions. It accesses the SWIFT network which tracks the movement of money around the world. SWIFT was on board with the program, albeit with reservations and concerns, and there were more safeguards put in place since the program’s inception post 9/11.

So, the governement and the papers agree that the program is sensitive and encroaches on privacy. There seems to be no question that the information gleaned through it can be and has been valuable. There also seems to be agreement that this information can be put to ill use and that safeguards have to be in place, which the governement has done. The question is, in the final analysis, who makes the final call on how important something is to our national security? The media or the governement? Does it matter that one group are elected officials (or appointed through elected officials) and the other not? That one group has been charged with keeping us safe and the other to sell papers and make a profit?


Why is it OK to complain about the NYT and LA Times running a story when the Wall Street Journal was not even asked to suppress it?

This does not seem to be a matter of the press rushing to expose things the government needs kept secret so much as the adminstration looking to control the spin given to the story. From the linked story in the OP:

Related story noting that both the NYT AND the WSJ ran the story.

I took that to imply that the WSJ didn’t run it. If they did, I simply add it to the list with the NY Times, the LA Times and anyone else who broke the story. The question still stands.

The government makes that call when it decides a piece of information should be classified. If it does not make that decision, the media are not only permitted but professionally obligated to publicize the information if, in their judgment, it has any news value. That’s how it’s always been. There are some close calls – like the Pentagon Papers case – but what you’re describing is nothing of the kind. There is absolutely no reason for the newspapers not to run this story.

No, they shouldn’t, but they did not leak the story, just repeated it after the fact. It was already out, and well, it was in the brains of more than 3 people at least. At that point, it ain’t a secret by a longshot. Since our government watching us in this manner is an important fact, and information is crucial to a functioning democracy, they were at that point obligated to the public to release the information. Since it was also information held by their competitors, they were obligated to their owners to release it quick.

Well, maybe. There are several different questions, here.

What sort of sneaky things should the government be allowed to do without oversight? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Given the history of the government doing things that were wrong and hiding them behind “national security,” I certainly do not trust the government to police itself and the news media is the only other option available.

I would definitely oppose a news outlet publishing a list of the names of spies. I would consider it treasonous for a news outlet to publish troop movements and battle plans on the eve of battle. (It is interesting to note that the government used that excuse to shut down the news media in Grenada and in Panama where we murdered several thousand people while putting our puppets in to replace the dictator we had originally funded so that we could better control the canal, even though such an event had never occurred. In fact, the closest thing to that event happened after the Grenada and Panama incidents when Peter Jennings played spotter for Iraq’s Scuds launched against Israel and it has not happened since.)

And, of course, in this particular case, it is interesting that the adminstration did not actually think that it was going to be harmful to publish the information, since they did not even ask the WSJ to keep silent.

The sort of thing that is discussed in the article cannot be hidden forever. It would seem to me that allowing the U.S. news media to report it–demonstrating an above-board approach to the action–makes much more sense than allowing the story to be broken by The Guardian or le Monde where it would be portrayed as a violation of international rights.

If the government needs to keep something secret, then it is up to them to keep it secret. Aside from spies, battle plans, hostage negotiations, or searches for serial killers, I have not seen any news reports that were justifiably suppressed.
Pentagon Papers, anyone?

No reason? It’s been a helpful tool in the fight against terror that involves no armed conflict. It allows us to target the money players which makes it harder for those who would want to wage a war of terror and blow up innocent people to do so. That’s “no reason”?!! :confused:

How does publishing information that is available to anyone who watches international financial transactions change or stop the practice?

Why would you believe the claim of the government that secrecy was necessary when they, themselves, did not feel secrecy was necessary as long as the source was (generally) favorable to the admninistration?

I don’t accept the premise of the OP. The media are not “deciding” national security issues; they are deciding what to do with information they obtain through their own digging (and, often in such cases, through leaks from officials in the government itself).

There’s always been a tension between the Federal government’s need to keep secrets, and the media’s imperatives to spread the news and to sell papers/magazines/ad time. JFK persuaded the NYT not to break the story on what became the Bay of Pigs, and ruefully told his advisors later he wished they’d run the story after all. The government can make its best case to the papers to keep a secret, but they are not obligated to bow to its wishes; here, the government apparently wasn’t persuasive enough. Given the less-than-honest conduct of the Bush Administration in disclosing or confirming other data-mining and surveillance programs in recent years, I’d be very leery of what a government lawyer told me nowadays if I were a publisher or network exec. Too often, in hindsight, what was described as “vital to national security” was merely politically embarrassing to, or inexpedient for, the Administration of the day.

If it’s as serious a potential breach of secrecy as he says, Uncle Sam can ask a court for an injunction. Prior restraint is highly disfavored in a democratic society, however, and the courts are quite properly skeptical about granting it.

I think that’s as it should be. YMMV.

I don’t think all the information is available to anyone. For instance, who belongs to which transaction/bank accoint number.

So, if those who are moving money for terrorist means know that their transactions are 1) traceable and 2) being watched, they will seek to find new ways to move the money, thus hurting our ability to fight terrorism.

You are assuming a motivation. I do not know why the WSJ was not asked to not run the story. Maybe someone assumed they wouldn’t run it. I don’t know. You don’t either. I also don’t know how The Washington Times fits in? Were they asked to not run the story? If not, why? Same with other major papers.

To answer the OP directly - yes, the “Fourth Estate” does have an absolute right to publish whatever they want. It’s in the Constitution. So the best the government can do is politely request that a paper not run a story and present any argument it wishes to make about why the paper shouldn’t publish it. If the press decides to publish it anyway, that’s their right. If you don’t like this system, I recommend you start working on getting an Amendment passed.

I am drawing a fairly logical conclusion given that only papers not considered freindly to the administration were asked to withhold information.

You are also making assumptions: that this information, that multiple papers had been able to acquire, was somehow invisible to the very people who spend their lives acting in the business. Where do you think that multiple papers got information to go send out reporters if it did not come from people in the business talking about the actions of the Feds. If it was really a secret, the reporters would not have known, either.
At any rate, I have seen no reason for this story to be suppressed (and only by outlets the administration considers unfriendly) and I do not believe that any paper should censor itself at the whim of government. If the government has a legitimate reason to suppress a story, let them take it to court and get an injunction.

I’m not sure what your question is regarding the Washington Time. Since it was obviously not meant as a leak by the adminstration, there would have been no way for the WT to even be aware of the story.

Which is precisely the point of the question. Should those decisions ne made with the primary motivation being our national security or commerce?

Before an article is published, the information is known. In this case, there seems to be no ulterior motive on the government’s behalf other than to use this info to fight terrorism, which it has been helpful in doing. If, when they were looking into it, some cover-up or other nefarious purpose was served by not publishing it, I’d probably err on the side of publishing it. But here, we seem to have a program that was valuable, was recognized as being sensitive, had safeguards increasingly put in place, had not been abused, and had no nefarious ulterior motive attached to it.

I think this is a cop out. If you know that a particular action will result in the abolishing of a program that serves our national security concerns, it’s the same if you had abolished the program from within the governement. Now there might be competing “goods”, making it worth it, but the result is the same.

Good point. If it was that important I wonder why the administration didn’t do more to prevent its outing. Maybe, given the recent charges of hyper-secrecy and invasion into privacy they didn’t want to stand up and fight.

How about the Washington Post? Were they asked? Did they acquiesce? Surely, the motivation for the WT and the WP would not be the same. There are too many unknowns here. I find it entertaining that you who are often such a stickler for facts and cites on these boards are so quick to ascribe motivations on such flimsy—no, make that zero—evidence.

I don’t think we have enought information to move much further on that front. I thiink one of the most interesting things about this is why, given the value the government thought the program had, they didn’t fight it more. Cold it be that they have already replaced it with a even more secret program? :smiley:

Still, I am intrigued by the interplay of powers here. I agree that the press has an obligation and a right to report the news. I also see that the security of the nation is the responsibility of the governement. Id’ probably give the governement’s desires in this arena more leeway than the press. Burt let me ask this: what if this press makes a call and gets it wrong. This secret program is a bad example, but what if a paper makes a call concerneing something that has direct devasting results the next day, can/shold they be held accountable? How about if the paper was asked to not report it?

If the information gets to journalists, they should run with it if they want to. If the information is top secret or something, the person leaking the information to the press should be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

I’m sorry, but I don’t trust the government. I’m not saying that just because I think Bush was untruthful or anything… I came of age while Nixon was President. I don’t trust the government no matter who’s in office. While the press may be as biased as any political party… they can’t actually implement policy.

If the title of the Fourth Estate was ever deserved by the media, it was for serving as a check on the other three branches of government, no? If it is to serve that role, which I would wholeheartedly support, it should print whatever furthers that purpose, including the present story.

Somehow, I find it hard to believe that terrorist ne’er-do-wells had never ever ever never ever considered the possibility that their telephone calls might be tapped and their banking transactions monitored by the fearless feds until they read about it in the L.A. Times.

Especially that Bin Laden dude – he was probably napping in class every time his CIA instructors were droning on about the topic… :wink:

Sorry. The fact that two administration-unfriendly papers were lobbied (one, at least, by a face-to-face meeting extending for an hour and a half), while an administration-friendly paper was not even approached with a suggestion to suppress exactly the same story is simply not “zero evidence” even if you chose to ignore the WSJ statement from the story in your OP.

The Washington Post was not an initial investigator into the story, so it was not approached by the Feds. (Every WP story indicates that is following up the initial story from the NYT, LAT, and WSJ.)

As noted, since the story is not a news release from the White House, the Washington Times would have had no prior knowledge of the story.

Whose primary motivation is our national security? Do we really live in a time when national security demands alone require us to classify 15,000,000 documents a year? That’s up by a factor of two since 2001, and fourfold since 1995.
Has the US really become that much less secure since Clinton’s first term, or has ass-covering slipped in as a major motivation for classifying documents?

You seem to be making an assumption that the publication of these news articles about the program has nullified the program. That does not follow. Let’s take a related example. There are many methods employed in the financial industry for detecting money laundering. People who do money laundering are aware that they exist, although they may not always know the specifics. If a newspaper publishes an article detailing one of these methods, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the method can no longer be used to detect money laundering. Now, maybe some subset of criminals will read the article and as a result come up with a better way to defeat that particular monitoring method – and maybe not. If they do, their alternate method of money laundering may make them more likely to be detected by another method. It’s hard to say.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I don’t agree at all that the papers in question made decisions regarding matters of national security. They had information, the government requested that they withhold it, and they declined. This information was not realistically comparable to the identity of spies, battle plans, or other clear-cut areas of national security. When it comes right down to it, the mission of the press is to disseminate information. There are certainly some downsides (paparazzi, anyone?), but on balance the benefit of a free press far outweighs the detrimental aspects.