Piling On the New York Times With a Scoop

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

President Bush calls the conduct of the New York Times "disgraceful." Vice President Cheney objects to the paper having won a Pulitzer Prize. A Republican congressman wants the Times prosecuted. National Review says its press credentials should be yanked. Radio commentator Tammy Bruce likens the paper to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Even by modern standards of media-bashing, the volume of vitriol being heaped upon the editors on Manhattan's West 43rd Street is remarkable -- especially considering that the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal also published accounts Friday of a secret administration program to monitor the financial transactions of terror suspects. So, in its later editions, did The Washington Post.

Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an interview yesterday that critics "are still angry at us" for disclosing the government's domestic eavesdropping program in December, "and I guess in their view, this adds insult to injury. . . . The Bush administration's reaction roused their base, but also roused the anti-Bush base as well," he said, noting an approximately even split in his e-mail.

Still, Keller added, "a lot of people have legitimate and genuine feelings about this, and I don't mean to belittle that."

For Republicans, the Times, with its national prominence and liberal editorial page opposed to the war in Iraq, is proving an increasingly irresistible target. They contend that exposing the classified banking program has badly undermined the administration's efforts to investigate and capture terrorists.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, yesterday asked John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, for a damage assessment following the Times story. Three other GOP senators joined Roberts at a news conference, with John Ensign of Nevada saying the paper "should have worked in cooperation with those authorities in our government to make sure that those who leaked were prosecuted." Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth circulated a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert calling for the paper's congressional credentials to be withdrawn. And New York Rep. Peter King continues to call for the Times -- which, he told Fox News, has an "arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda" -- to be prosecuted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act.

Most Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, lay low. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sidestepped a question yesterday about whether the Times should be prosecuted. Similarly, while the conservative blogosphere was on fire over the Times, many liberal Web sites ignored the controversy.

Keller said he spent more than an hour in late May listening to Treasury Secretary John Snow argue against publication of the story. He said that he also got a call from Negroponte, the national intelligence czar, and that three former officials also made the case to Times editors: Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, chairmen of the 9/11 commission, and Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania -- an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.

"The main argument they made to me, extensively and at length, besides that the program is valuable and legitimate, was that there are a lot of banks that are very sensitive to public opinion, and if this sees the light of day, they may stop cooperating," Keller said.

He acknowledged, as did the Times article, that there was no clear evidence that the banking program was illegal. But, he said, "there were officials who talked to us who were uncomfortable with the legality of this program, and others who were uncomfortable with the sense that what started as a temporary program had acquired a kind of permanence.

"I always start with the premise that the question is, why should we not publish? Publishing information is our job. What you really need is a reason to withhold information."

Such clashes between the government and the press are hardly new. President Kennedy pressed the Times successfully to withhold most details of the impending Bay of Pigs invasion. President Nixon created a "plumbers" unit to stop leaks. The Reagan administration threatened to prosecute news organizations for publishing national security information.

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