Public Editor Recants: Times Was Wrong to Expose Terrorist Surveillance Program

The lead story for the June 23 Times exposed a U.S. terrorist surveillance program involving international bank transfers ("Bank Data Sifted In Secret By U.S. To Block Terror"): "Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials."

The word "secret" has been highlighted for reasons that will become clear.

The surveillance of transactions by the Belgian global banking cooperative, known as SWIFT, is back in the news because the Times' public editor Barney Calame has changed his mind and now thinks the paper should not have run the story that exposed and possibly sabotaged the successful anti-terror program.

For such a reliable corporate yes-man, this required some guts. But there it is, albeit buried at the bottom ofCalame's Sunday column and not referenced in the less-than-riveting headline: "Can 'Magazines' of the Times Subsidize News Coverage?"

The admission comes instead under an uninformative subhead, "Banking Data: A Mea Culpa," in which he retracts his previous defense of his paper's publication of details of the SWIFT program.

(Back on July 2, Calame wrote: "My close look convinced me that Bill Keller, the executive editor, was correct in deciding that Times readers deserved to read about the banking-data surveillance program. And the growing indications that this and other financial monitoring operations were hardly a secret to the terrorist world minimizes the possibility that the article made America less safe.")

Now, here's Calame on October 22: "My July 2 column strongly supported The Times's decision to publish its June 23 article on a once-secret banking-data surveillance program. After pondering for several months, I have decided I was off base. There were reasons to publish the controversial article, but they were slightly outweighed by two factors to which I gave too little emphasis. While it's a close call now, as it was then, I don't think the article should have been published."

Calame actually credits his critics for changing his mind on the "secrecy" point: "In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn't a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a 'secret' program was being exposed."

Indeed, after controversy exploded, several Times' editors and reporters (including Calame) disingenuously backtracked, claiming that the "secret" program wasn't really a secret at all, but old news terrorists already knew about - which of course is why the paper called it "secret" in the headline and in the text.

Blogger Tom Maguire is ambivalent about Calame's turnabout: "Well, I suppose we should acknowledge Mr. Calame's grace in admitting his error, and before the election to boot.And keep in mind, the decision to publish was not his to make. That said, this flip-flop will annoy folks on the other side of this debate without mollifying cranks such as me.I would guess that Mr. Calame's lonely job just got a little lonelier."

Other Times critics are puzzling over Calame's immature justification for his initial knee-jerk defense of the Times: "What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press - two traits that I warned readers about in my first column."

Law professor-blogger Eugene Volokh wonders where precisely the "vicious" attack is: "...could readers please point me to the Administration statements that the editor seems to be referring to as 'vicious criticism[s]'? I would genuinely like to be informed about this, since it might provide a better referent for what 'vicious' means in political discourse (for instance, for deciding whether particular New York Times columns critical of the Administration are themselves 'vicious criticism[s]')."

Michelle Malkin has a round-up of "vicious" criticism of the Times from Bush and Vice President Cheney and comes away underwhelmed.