Monday, June 26, 2006

Weak Sauce

This, from the Times' Bill Keller yesterday, is just plain weak. I won't offer much in the way of analysis because, frankly, others are doing it better but this is just a weak attempt at justifying the Times' pulling back of the curtain of secrecy that shrouds our government's counter-terrorism efforts.

As to that 'better analysis'...

Hugh's initial reaction is here. Instapundit and Powerline (lawyers all), weigh in here and here. Meanwhile, Andy McCarthy at NRO lets loose again here.

The Administration has even weighed in now; the President here: "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful,"...and the Vice President with these comments:

"What is doubly disturbing for me is that not only have they gone forward with these stories, but they've been rewarded for it, for example, in the case of the terrorist surveillance program, by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. I think that is a disgrace."

Perhaps the best response of all comes, however, from outgoing Treasury Secretary John Snow who writes this response to Bill Keller's 'explanation':

Mr. Bill Keller, Managing Editor The New York Times 229 West 43rd Street New York, NY 10036

Dear Mr. Keller:

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. In choosing to expose this program, despite repeated pleas from high-level officials on both sides of the aisle, including myself, the Times undermined a highly successful counter-terrorism program and alerted terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trails.

Your charge that our efforts to convince The New York Times not to publish were "half-hearted" is incorrect and offensive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past two months, Treasury has engaged in a vigorous dialogue with the Times - from the reporters writing the story to the D.C. Bureau Chief and all the way up to you. It should also be noted that the co-chairmen of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission, Governor Tom Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, met in person or placed calls to the very highest levels of the Times urging the paper not to publish the story. Members of Congress, senior U.S. Government officials and well-respected legal authorities from both sides of the aisle also asked the paper not to publish or supported the legality and validity of the program.

Indeed, I invited you to my office for the explicit purpose of talking you out of publishing this story. And there was nothing "half-hearted" about that effort. I told you about the true value of the program in defeating terrorism and sought to impress upon you the harm that would occur from its disclosure. I stressed that the program is grounded on solid legal footing, had many built-in safeguards, and has been extremely valuable in the war against terror. Additionally, Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey met with the reporters and your senior editors to answer countless questions, laying out the legal framework and diligently outlining the multiple safeguards and protections that are in place.

You have defended your decision to compromise this program by asserting that "terror financiers know" our methods for tracking their funds and have already moved to other methods to send money. The fact that your editors believe themselves to be qualified to assess how terrorists are moving money betrays a breathtaking arrogance and a deep misunderstanding of this program and how it works. While terrorists are relying more heavily than before on cumbersome methods to move money, such as cash couriers, we have continued to see them using the formal financial system, which has made this particular program incredibly valuable.

Lastly, justifying this disclosure by citing the "public interest" in knowing information about this program means the paper has given itself free license to expose any covert activity that it happens to learn of - even those that are legally grounded, responsibly administered, independently overseen, and highly effective. Indeed, you have done so here.

What you've seemed to overlook is that it is also a matter of public interest that we use all means available - lawfully and responsibly - to help protect the American people from the deadly threats of terrorists. I am deeply disappointed in the New York Times.

John W. Snow, Secretary

U.S. Department of the Treasury

The Secretary's letter packs, by far, the biggest wallop of any of the "official" responses and--rightfully so in my opinion--calls Mr. Keller out for trying to sugar-coat the issue of who-said-what about the program to the Times. Under Secretary Levey underscored that argument in an interview on the Hugh Hewitt program this afternoon:

HH: I'm talking to Stuart Levey, who is the department of Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. Mr. Levey, about half hour ago, I pretaped a segment with Wolf Blitzer, and a former Washington Post ombudsman. And Wolf made the argument to me now look, how do we know that this is going to help terrorists? And I replied that certainly in the case of Hambali, anyone who knows Hambali in the terrorist world will simply reverse engineer what he did with regards to money, and not do it again. Is that overstatement? Is that one of the ways...

SL: Well, I think you're essentially on the right track, Hugh. I mean, what people will now know is exactly what information it is that we're obtaining, and it's not too hard to evade it. I have to say, I hope very much that it remains valuable, but I'm certainly concerned that the effectiveness of this program has been damaged.

HH: New York Times editor Bill Keller published a letter on his website yesterday, and this paragraph stuck out at me. It was the second to last, or actually, the third from the last paragraph. "A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported, indeed trumpeted by the Treasury Department, that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash. Your response, Stuart Levey?

SL: Well, I have a couple of responses to that. One, it's offensive to me that he says it's half-hearted. I met with his editors several times, his reporters several times. I made a very impassioned pitch to them, and it was very, very heartfelt. I pleaded with them not to publish this story. Secondly, I would say it's quite arrogant of the New York Times to be suggesting that they know what terrorists are doing. I'm telling you that the terrorists are still using this system. At least they were up until last week, and it was continuing to be valuable. Yes, a number of terrorist organizations are moving money through case and other informal means, but this system was still being valuable, and exposing it was quite damaging.

HH: Did you meet with Mr. Keller?

SL: Secretary Snow did.

HH: And when did that happen?

SL: I don't have an exact date, and I'm not sure I would do that. But we were engaged with them over a period of several weeks, trying to persuade them not to publish this story.
HH: Stuart Levey, did you go to New York?

SL: No, I met with them here, and all the meetings were in Washington.

HH: Do you want the Department of Justice to try and ascertain who it is that leaked this information to the New York Times?

SL: Well, I think that we need to find out how some of these leaks are occurring. This series of leaks that we've had, and the publications that we've had, make it very difficult to do counter-terrorism. We certainly are pursuing a very deadly enemy. These people take a lot of precautions, and we can't expect to continue disrupting them if our programs are all exposed on the front pages of our newspapers. So yes, I'd love to see whatever can be done to stop it.
HH: Have you read Mr. Keller's letter?

SL: I have, yes.

HH: And what was your general response, not just to that paragraph, but to his tone and his attitude?

SL: I don't think that I want to get into a dispute with Mr. Keller. I think it's...I'll just leave it by saying we tried very, very hard to persuade them not to publish it. We believe, and I think the overall reaction to the story bears this out, that this is on very, very sound legal footing, we have controls in place, and it was quite valuable. Those three things taken together, in our view, tipped the balance so that it shouldn't have been published. Mr. Keller made a different decision, and that's his to make. And I'm just disappointed.

The fire breathed at Keller and his reporters is justifiable and, if there be any justice will continue for quite some time. A Rather-esque retirement would be the least satisfactory result at this point.

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