The New York Times reports that the Bush administration launched an offensive against the newspaper yesterday for its decision to reveal a financial monitoring program used to track terrorists:
President Bush on Monday condemned as "disgraceful" the disclosure last week by The New York Times and other newspapers of a secret program to investigate and track terrorists that relies on a vast international database that includes Americans' banking transactions.
The remarks were the first in public by Mr. Bush on the issue, and they came as the administration intensified its attacks on newspapers' handling of it. In a speech in Nebraska on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly criticized The Times by name, while Treasury Secretary John W. Snow dismissed as "incorrect and offensive" the rationale offered by the newspaper's executive editor for the decision to publish.
"Congress was briefed," Mr. Bush said. "And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And 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."
But the damage done by the decision to publish the story isn't altogether clear:
Administration officials had argued strongly that in reporting on the financial tracking operation, The Times would endanger national security by prompting the Belgian banking consortium that maintains the financial data to withdraw from the program. On Sunday, Mr. Keller, the paper's executive editor, posted a letter on The New York Times Web site saying that the newspaper "found this argument puzzling," partly because the banking consortium is compelled by subpoena to comply.
Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.
Mr. Keller said in the letter that the administration had made a "secondary argument" that publication of the article would lead terrorists to change tactics, but he said that argument had been made "in a halfhearted way."
Mr. Snow, the Treasury secretary, challenged that view in strong terms in a letter to Mr. Keller, saying, "Nothing could be further from the truth." Mr. Snow said that he and other high-level officials, including Democrats, had made "repeated pleas" in an effort to dissuade The Times from publication. The letter was made public by the Treasury in a news release on Monday evening.
It's hard to imagine that Al Qaeda thought their financial transactions weren't being monitored. So why is the administration demonizing the Times so explicitly? (Cheney, for instance, did not name the other newspapers that published the story.) Could it be the fact that conservatives hate the Times and are demoralized going into the 2006 election? Karl Rove may be pioneering a new base-rallying strategy. Call it God, gays, and Gotham journalists. Or how about terrorists, taxes, and the Times?