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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Does Bill Keller think the NY Times has the authority to make national security decisions?

Note: This post was updated at 2158 EDT to address issues raised by several bloggers from the Life, Liberty and Property blogroll, most notably Jon Henke of QandO and Josh Poulson of pun.org, along with Jay at Stop the ACLU. Thanks to all of them, with the usual blah blah blah that sole responsibility for the content of this post is mine, so don't yell at them.

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How did Hugh Hewitt miss this??

On April 26, the Wall Street Journal published a scathing editorial entitled, "Our Rotten IntelligenCIA," in which the Journal's editorial board bemoaned the existence of an "unseemly symbiosis between elements of the press corps and a cabal of partisan bureaucrats at the CIA and elsewhere in the 'intelligence community' who have been trying to undermine the Bush Presidency."

According to the Journal, this unholy alliance began with Joe Wilson's op-ed piece about Saddam Hussein, Niger and uranium published in the New York Times, and continued with the CIA allowing the publication of former spook Michael Scheuer's book "Through Our Enemies Eyes," (under the clever pseudonym "Anonymous"), the leaks about the NSA's warrantless surveillance to Times reporter James Risen, and Mary McCarthy's alleged leaks about alleged secret prisons to alleged journalist Dana Priest, allegedly of the Washington Post.

Which brings us to today. In a move that strikes me as fairly extraordinary, the Journal has given editorial space to New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, to allow him to respond to the above.

One paragraph in his response leapt off the page at me:
In addition to fair treatment in the news pages, presidents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president. [Emphasis Cranky's again]
Let me get this straight. Did Keller just say that the New York Times editorial board is a better judge of this country's national security interests than the President is?

Let me double check this.

The President tells the Times that the publication of X is potentially damaging to America's national security. The Times "considers" the evidence presented to it by the President, "agonizes" over it, and initially "delays publication" of X.

But "in the end," the unelected members of the Times board determine that the President did not prove to their satisfaction that X's publication would be damaging to national security, so they decide that they should "publish what they know" and "let readers assess it themselves." And then what - if the readers' assessment is that the President was right, the Times would unpublish it???

(I should make it clear that I'm not interested here in the legality of the Times' publication of James Risen's stories, or of any news organization's airing of classified information that it obtained legally. I'm not a lawyer, and this is clearly a complicated legal issue that is way above my pay grade.)

It strikes me that there are two possible flip responses to Keller's assertion, the first being that the good news is that Keller, in his arrogance, actually admitted what many have long suspected: that the editorial staff of the New York Times really does think it runs the country. Great. I'm raising issues of profound importance to the very future of this country, indeed the world, and you're cracking wise.

The second is "Well, the Times' editorial board is a better judge of America's national security interests than President Bush." Okay, fine. I'll even grant you that point (without agreeing to it), because I don't think it makes any difference with regards to my point. But as a thought experiment, think of this in the abstract, purely theoretically, with no names or ideologies assigned to any of the players. The President could be anyone and the Times' board could have any (or no) ideological leanings. (Hey, I said this was purely theoretical.) Are you still okay with it? Better yet, let's say you thought that this theoretical President's vision of America's future was crystal clear, that you trusted her to make nothing but wise decisions that were always in the best interest of the nation. Would you then be okay with the editorial board of a theoretical newspaper overriding these decisions?

I certainly don't mean to imply that the President alone should be the arbiter of what constitutes the national security interests of America. As a libertarian, the notion of that kind of concentration of power scares the hell out of me. But at the same time, I'm not particularly happy about a newspaper's editorial board abrogating to itself the right to final cut on issues of national security. Nobody voted for whomever at the Times made the decision that he or she (or they) knew what was best for America: none of the people involved in this decision had their views on national security vetted by the public, whose security it is that's at stake here. There's a list of political and economic systems in which unelected "elites" determine what's best for the lowly proletariat, and neither capitalism nor democracy is on it.

In a democracy, if you want the authority to implement your opinions in decisions regarding the national interest, you have to have the stones to put those opinions up to a public vote first. And if for some reason that assertion is wrong, then I want my daddy to give me a newspaper, too.


Blogger Paul said...

umm... I think the guy said that the NYT had their own evidence, and that the information given to them by the Administration did not refute their evidence that the Administration was breaking the law. Your use of "X" in your setup signals an attempt to blunt the powerful substance of the allegations here. The NYT was alleging that the President was actively blatantly flouting established law, and that this was more serious than any illegal wiretaps that might be jeopardized. Whether they were correct or not is open for debate, but it's not fair to characterize this as the NYT saying they know what's better for national security than the President. I think it was more like they weren't convinced the President wasn't just trying to cover his ass.

23:15  
Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

Hmm. I see your point, but this is what Keller wrote, with emphasis by me:

In addition to fair treatment in the news pages, presidents are entitled to a respectful and attentive hearing, particularly when they make claims based on the safety of the country. In the case of the eavesdropping story, President Bush and other figures in his administration were given abundant opportunities to explain why they felt our information should not be published. We considered the evidence presented to us, agonized over it, delayed publication because of it. In the end, their case did not stand up to the evidence our reporters amassed, and we judged that the responsible course was to publish what we knew and let readers assess it themselves. You are welcome to question that judgment, but you have presented no basis for challenging it, let alone for attributing it to bad faith or animus toward the president.

It seems to me that Keller's position is:
1. Presidents are entitled to a hearing from us, especially when they make claims based on national security grounds.
2. The Prez and others were given the chance to tell us why we shouldn't publish our information, i.e., make the case that publishing this info would be harmful to national security.
3. In the end, we judged their case not compelling enough, based on the evidence our reporters had compiled
4. Since we decided that the Administration's claim that publishing our info would be harmful to natsec was unpersuasive to us, i.e., we decided that our judgment of what was harmful to natsec superseded POTUS's, we went ahead and published our stories.

I certainly wasn't using X in an attempt to blunt anything. If anything, I was trying to stress that this issue, for me at least, is not about partisanship, but is about a general principle.

Also, although you make it sound as though Bush was trying to quash this story because he didn't want to get busted for breaking the law, this motive has never been cited by anyone, including the Times. Every report from the Times makes it clear that Bush specifically asked them not to publish on the grounds of national security. Plus, it's pretty obvious that Bush believes what he did to be completely within his constitutional power as President, so he really doesn't have a personal motive for not wanting the story to get out.

You may not agree with him - I have major problems with his take, myself - but I don't think it's fair to ascribe Nixonian motives to him.

23:50  
Blogger Paul said...

That last part was me interjecting my own spin :)

I don't have any qualms associating Nixonian motives to these guys, since they're reading from the guy's playbook.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying. Interesting point.

01:06  
Blogger David said...

I fail to see a problem. Secrecy in matters of policy has no place in a government that is respectful of its citizens. If we were talking about a single, ongoing wiretap or a single, ongoing investigation then I could see why you'd expect the NYT to hold off indefinitely on publishing the pertinent information. Even then, the president would need to make a convincing case. But when a newspaper has evidence of an ongoing chain of possible abuses that the public simply doesn't know about, it should weigh the consequences and benefits in their own minds.

If we believe in the sovereignty of the individual, as I do, then we can't ask anyone to allow the judgement of another man, even the president, to supercede his own. The members of the NYT editorial board are fully capable of weighing the evidence and there is nothing substantial the president can add unless he's privy to further, hidden information. In that case he should present it to the NYT (perhaps under the understanding that this further information comes with some sort of price or with a mechanism to prevent further disclosure). In any case, whatever the setup, the decision is rightfully the newspaper's to make.

Of course, if you question the motives of the NYT, or think them to be evil, you should say so. A free society is one in which ideas and facts float freely and are openly engaged. To me, anyway, the notion of "national security" is of secondary importance, not least because it is a subjective concept.

This is of course my ethical position and it has no bearing in law or contemporary policy. I'm talking about what's right, not what's legal or respectful of political mores.

12:08  

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