National Security, Freedom of the Press and the New York Times

Did publication of information about the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program by the New York Times adversely impact national security?

A national debate has been raging as a result of the publication of information by the New York Times regarding the publication of information regarding the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. It is a classic case of national security versus the right of a news organization to distribute information.

Treasury Secretary John Snow sent a letter to the New York Times which said, in part, The New York Times’ decision to disclose the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, a robust and classified effort to map terrorist networks through the use of financial data, was irresponsible and harmful to the security of Americans and freedom-loving people worldwide.”

The Times defended its decision (and responded to large numbers of comments from the public) to publish the information on the program with a column that said, in part: “We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them.”

The Wall Street Journal, which also published information on the program, reacted strongly to the defense offered by the New York Times. A Journal editoral stated: “We published a story on the same subject on the same day, and the Times has since claimed us as its ideological wingman. So allow us to explain what actually happened, putting this episode within the larger context of a newspaper’s obligations during wartime….

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.”

The reaction from the public has been strong, in part because of fear about damage the Times decision may have had on the ability of the federal government to deter terrorism. Some have referred to the action by the Times to be the equivalent of treason against the country.

Others believe the real motivation was an attempt to boost circulation and profits of the Times at the expense of national security.

Democrats have been relatively quiet on the subject and some in the media think the controversy is more about politics. Terence Smith, a former New York Times writer and a recent PBS media correspondent, said the paper is a ‘lightning rod when its critics are playing politics, and that’s what’s happening here. An institution like the Times is a God-given target, because it’s seen by the conservative base as a liberal newspaper critical of the Bush administration.’ “

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47