MANY READERS have been sharply critical of our decision to publish an article Friday on the U.S. Treasury Department’s program to secretly monitor worldwide money transfers in an effort to track terrorist financing.
They have sent me sincere and powerful expressions of their disappointment in our newspaper, and they deserve an equally thoughtful and honest response.
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government’s assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.
We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department’s program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.
In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.
Some readers have seen our decision to publish this story as an attack on the Bush administration and an attempt to undermine the war on terror.
We are not out to get the president. This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists. We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda’s role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment.
But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That’s the role of the press in our democracy.
The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost or how much we are criticized. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” That’s the edict we followed.
This was a tough call for me, as I’m sure it was for the editors of other papers that chose to publish articles on the subject. But history tells us over and over that the nation’s founders were right in pushing the press into this role. President Kennedy persuaded the press not to report the Bay of Pigs planning. He later said he regretted this, that he might have called it off had someone exposed it.
History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish. No one believes, in retrospect, that there was any true reason to withhold the Pentagon Papers, although the government fought vigorously to keep them from being published by the New York Times and the Washington Post. As Justice Hugo Black put it in that case: “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.”
I don’t expect all of our readers to agree with my call. But understand that it was one taken with serious reflection and supported by much history.