War of Words on Bank Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

For the Wall Street Journal editorial page, there may be no more juicy target than the liberal press appearing to undermine the Bush administration's war on terror.

The White House and congressional Republicans, after all, have spent the past week attacking the New York Times for disclosing a secret program targeting the banking records of suspected terrorists.

The problem: The Journal itself had published a front-page story about the classified program on June 23, the same day as the Times.

The Journal's conservative editorial page weighed in yesterday by arguing that what the two newspapers had done was very different:

"More than a few commentators have tried to link the Journal and Times at the hip. On the left, the motive is to help shield the Times from political criticism. On the right, the goal is to tar everyone in the 'mainstream media.' . . . We suspect that the Times has tried to use the Journal as its political heatshield precisely because it knows our editors have more credibility on these matters."

Later in the day, the Times' publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., returned fire in what has now escalated into a full-fledged battle between the two New York papers.

The Journal editorial board, which operates independently from the newsroom, said a top Treasury Department official had contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson and handed him the story. The editorial said Treasury officials decided to "declassify a series of talking points" after failing to persuade the New York Times -- as well as the Los Angeles Times -- to kill the story on grounds that it would neutralize a key administration weapon in the war on terror. The same declassified information was provided to the other two papers, as well as to The Washington Post later on the evening of June 22.

"Our guess," the editorial said, is that Treasury believed Simpson "would write a straighter story than the Times" -- and, it added, "he did."

The editorial makes clear that the administration handed the Journal the same information that President Bush and Vice President Cheney, among others, have been denouncing the Times for publishing.

The Republican-controlled House, in a move clearly aimed at the Times, adopted a resolution Thursday that criticizes the press for publishing details of the classified banking program.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continued the assault yesterday in an interview with ABC News Radio, saying, "The New York Times, when asked by the United States government, 'Please do not do that, it would cause the loss of American lives,' and they'd go right ahead and print it . . . it tells you a lot about the New York Times, and it certainly tells you a lot about the individual who did that."

In a Fox News poll released yesterday, 60 percent of those surveyed said the Times did more to help terrorist groups by publishing the information, while 27 percent said the story did more to help the public. Forty-three percent called what the newspapers did treason. Just over half said government employees were more to blame for leaking the classified information, 28 percent faulted the media for reporting it, and 17 percent said they were equally to blame.

Simpson, a veteran investigative reporter, had been asking questions about the secret banking program for some time as part of a broader story, but had not nailed it down, according to Journal staffers. That, they say, is how Treasury officials knew to call him.

"Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the administration asked us not to?" the editorial asks. "Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not."

So unusual was yesterday's editorial that the Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger, felt compelled to release a statement about it. "Had Treasury made such a request," he said, "we would have listened to the government's specific concerns, and weighed them seriously before reaching any final decision on publishing. But, having never heard those concerns, I can't guess how we ultimately would have responded."

Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot will not comment on grounds that the editorial should speak for itself, a spokesman said.

Sulzberger, whom the editorial accuses of deliberately seeking to obstruct the war on terror, offered his own response.

"I know many of the reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal and have greater faith in their journalistic excellence than does the editorial page of their own paper," Sulzberger said in a statement. "I, for one, do not believe they were unaware of the importance of what they were publishing nor oblivious to the impact such a story would have."

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