The New York Times has once again decided to divulge the details of a secret US program for fighting the war on terror. This time the targeted program is one in which the US is able to track money transfers crossing international borders initiated by known or suspected terrorists. Apparently the editorial decision was made in the face of appeals from the Administration as well as members of both parties in the Congress not to publish the story. In a subsequent editorial, the Times declared that the program poses such a threat to the privacy rights of Americans that whatever contribution it might be making to the national security is rendered irrelevant.
I am not persuaded by the New York Times' explanation; and neither is the Administration and its allies, who have publicly rebuked the Times. However, I am also not persuaded that the Times has done much damage in this instance. It seems unimaginable that al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization or state, is unaware that the US was (is) monitoring international financial transactions. In fact, I remember many in the Administration publicly discussing the possibility of doing just that in the wake of 9-11.
So, what might be behind the Administration’s campaign to marginalize the Times on this issue, a campaign that appears to be headed toward certain success? I see three plausible explanations for the Administration’s reaction. First, the Bush team sees an opportunity to warn the so-called mainstream press away from divulging other programs that are in fact far more sensitive in nature. A decidedly negative public reaction to the Times story will likely succeed in influencing future editorial decisions. Second, a strong public reaction by the Bush Administration sends the message to those in the CIA, NSA, and State Department who continue to violate the public trust by taking it upon themselves to divulge national security information with no regard whatsoever for their solemn oath not to do so that they will be “brought to justice.”
Finally, on the political front, the Bush team perceives that the Times and its allies within the intelligence community, who are revealing the existence of these programs with the intent of undermining the war on terror and forcing the US out of Iraq, have over-reached on this one. Misreading the public dissatisfaction with the strategy for victory as a readiness to "cut and run," the Times had intended to deal a knock-out punch to the President. Instead, they have succeeded in highlighting that the opposition, of which they are a part, has no interest in victory. Rather, it acknowledges (and even wants) a US defeat in Iraq. This could not have come at a worse time for the Democratic Party, coming as it did in the same week in which its congressional delegation split on a strategy of victory or withdrawal. The Times had hoped to solidify support for the latter and unify the Party. Instead, it has only further contributed to the split and a public perception that the Democrats are weak on defense.