Media Blog

WSJ: Not Everything is Fit to Print

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has explained how a news story about the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program appeared in its news pages, and how that decision differed from the NYT’s decision to publish:

According to Tony Fratto, Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, he first contacted the Times some two months ago. He had heard Times reporters were asking questions about the highly classified program involving Swift, an international banking consortium that has cooperated with the U.S. to follow the money making its way to the likes of al Qaeda or Hezbollah. Mr. Fratto went on to ask the Times not to publish such a story on grounds that it would damage this useful terror-tracking method. […]
The Times decided to publish anyway, letting Mr. Fratto know about its decision a week ago Wednesday. The Times agreed to delay publishing by a day to give Mr. Fratto a chance to bring the appropriate Treasury official home from overseas. Based on his own discussions with Times reporters and editors, Mr. Fratto says he believed “they had about 80% of the story, but they had about 30% of it wrong.” So the Administration decided that, in the interest of telling a more complete and accurate story, they would declassify a series of talking points about the program. They discussed those with the Times the next day, June 22.
Around the same time, Treasury contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information. Mr. Simpson has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift, and it is a common practice in Washington for government officials to disclose a story that is going to become public anyway to more than one reporter. Our guess is that Treasury also felt Mr. Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times, which was pushing a violation-of-privacy angle; on our reading of the two June 23 stories, he did.

To those who have been disingenuously asking why the NYT is bearing the brunt of the criticism (and speculating that it is all because the NYT is a liberal newspaper), let’s add this piece of the puzzle to what we already know. First, we know that the LA Times had not yet decided to publish when the NYT posted its story online. We know that the LA Times had not even had a chance to hear officials from the Treasury department make arguments against publishing. And we know that LA Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus was at a meeting with Treasury officials when he learned that the NYT had posted its story. At that point, the LA Times had no reason not to publish, other than as a “symbolic” gesture.
Now we know that the WSJ didn’t even learn the details of the program until after the NYT had informed the Treasury department of its decision to publish.

There is no excuse for fake cluelessness as to why Keller and his team are being singled out for exposing this program. But for their actions, the TFTP would probably remain a secret and effective method for tracking terrorists.

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