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Piling On the New York Times With a Scoop

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But rarely if ever has any White House mounted such a sustained public campaign against a single news organization. And a vast array of pundits on the right have responded by escalating their rhetoric.

Heather MacDonald, writing in the Weekly Standard, called the Times "a national security threat" that is "drunk" on its own power.

William Bennett, the former Reagan administration official and conservative radio host, said the "cumulative impact" of both Times stories, and The Post's disclosure of secret CIA prisons overseas, had brought the situation to a "critical mass." Conservatives, he said, now wonder: "Gosh, is there a secret operation we're running that won't be disclosed by the press?"

Bennett favors prosecuting journalists in national security cases, but believes that bringing espionage charges is not the best approach. He favors a leak investigation.

"If you go to these reporters and ask who their sources were, then they're in a Judy Miller situation," Bennett said, referring to the former Times reporter who spent 85 days behind bars for refusing to testify in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. "If they don't tell you, they go to jail. Some of us have been saying for a long time that the press is not above the law. Sooner or later you have to prove that."

Stephen Spruiell, who writes about the media for National Review Online, said there was a good reason for the comparatively muted reaction to the telephone eavesdropping story. "The divisive nature of that program tempered some of the criticism," he said. "Because the [banking] program is so defensible, you're seeing a much more vocal response."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, questioned how groundbreaking the Times banking report was. "Wouldn't you think any reasonably smart terrorist is going to know that his financial transactions are being tracked?" she asked.

For many people, Dalglish said, publishing secret information about a program that appears to be legal is "a risk they're not willing to take." But the "ugly" nature of the debate, she said, is exasperating: "I don't know how much more hate mail and vicious phone calls I can take."

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, said his paper had the story nailed down last Wednesday but did not reach a final decision on running it "because, among other things, we hadn't sat down yet with people at Treasury to give them a full chance to tell us why we should or shouldn't do it." At the same time, he said, "we were leaning toward publishing."

At about 7 p.m. Thursday, McManus was meeting with Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey when another department staffer handed Levey a BlackBerry and he announced: "Well, the New York Times has posted its story" on its Web site.

While a Treasury official did tell him that it would be nice if the Los Angeles paper decided not to run the story as a "symbolic gesture," the discussion was rendered moot, McManus said. Levey then went on the record to defend the program, as he did with other newspapers, including The Post, which began playing catch-up that evening.

Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles paper, noted in a letter published yesterday that "many readers have been sharply critical of our decision." He said he weighed the administration's arguments "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."

The Wall Street Journal had been working on the banking story for a long period of time but did not reach the point of having enough information to publish until Thursday afternoon, according to a staffer who declined to be identified because the newspaper is making no public comment. The Journal does not know why Treasury officials made no appeal against publication in that paper, but editors assume that by then the officials were resigned to the fact that the details were coming out, the staffer said.

Despite the stories that appeared in competing papers, the New York Times is still bearing the brunt of the criticism at the White House, on Capitol Hill and throughout the media world.

Terence Smith, a former Timesman who until recently was PBS's media correspondent, said the paper is a "lightning rod when its critics are playing politics, and that's what's happening here. An institution like the Times is a God-given target, because it's seen by the conservative base as a liberal newspaper critical of the Bush administration."


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