William McGowan: Adult supervision? @ the NYT? Part 2

William McGowan is the prominent journalist and author, most recently, of Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means for America. The book authoritatively covers the important and interesting subject suggested in its subtitle.

Glenn Reynolds hailed the book in the excellent lead review of the January 24, 2011, issue of National Review. Glenn wrote: “McGowan piles up incident after incident demonstrating beyond dispute that the New York Times of today is very different from, and far inferior to, the New York Times of a generation ago….[He] deploys the sheer repetitiveness of the problems as a way of making clear that they are systemic ones, not just the result of a few bad actors or bad decisions.” Numerous excerpts of favorable reviews are compiled here at the site for the book.

We have invited Mr. McGowan to write a series of columns for us on themes related to the book, and he has accepted. In the first column of this series he engaged in a bit of alternate history involving the sting that convulsed NPR. Today he continues his examination of the Times‘s treatment of national security issues that he commenced yesterday in “Adult supervision? @ the NYT? part 1.”:

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SWIFT banking surveillance program

Six months after their NSA wiretapping story, in June 2006, Risen and Lichtblau again sparked controversy with another highly classified intelligence exposé. This one described top- secret details of the covert SWIFT banking surveillance program to monitor terrorism-related bank transfers.

There was nothing illegal about the program, and it was highly effective. It assisted in the capture the mastermind of the Bali bombings of 2002 and it helped in identifying and convicting Uzair Paracha, who was found guilty of conspiring to launder $200,000 to help al-Qaeda.

Again, the government was livid, arguing that the Times report would undermine one of the most effective instruments of counterterrorism and close down a vital window on the murky doings of international terror.

The president called the story “disgraceful,” saying there was “no excuse” for a newspaper to publish the nation’s security secrets in time of war. Vice President Cheney called the story “damaging” to national interests. Secretary Snow said the Times had shown “breathtaking arrogance” and had given itself “license to expose any covert activity it learns of.” The Wall Street Journal’s editors, who commented that “Not everything is fit to print.” It added that “On issue after issue, it has become clear that the Times believes the U.S. is not really at war, and in any case the Bush Administration lacks the legitimacy to wage it.”

Stung by accusations of offering aid and comfort to the enemy, the Times issued defenses and explanations through a special “letter to readers,” an editorial, an ombudsman’s report, a string of efforts by op-ed columnists and an unusual op-ed co-authored by Bill Keller and the Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet. Keller also took the unusual step of making carefully managed appearances on Charlie Rose, Face the Nation and PBS NewsHour. As one watchdog website said, it was “all hands on deck” to help a listing ship.

On PBS NewsHour, Keller tried to produce a high-minded summary of the paper’s justification for giving away government secrets, by summoning the Founding Fathers’ vision of “a system whereby ordinary citizens and editors, amateurs, were entitled, under the basic law of the country, to second-guess the leadership of the country.” But on the same show, he was reduced to playground logic.

If drawing attention to the SWIFT program was “dangerous and unpatriotic,” he mused, why were conservative bloggers and pundits “drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet?” Keller also told Charlie Rose that “I think (the Bush White House) is embarrassed by the fact that this is an administration that has put a high premium on holding its secrets close and has not had a good record of doing that.”

Keller and the Times did a lot of backing and filling too. Although the original story used the word “secret” eight times, including in the headline, Keller now said the program was not a secret, echoing a USA Today front-page story that ran four days before the Times exposé and said that “terrorists know their money is being traced.” And In a New York magazine article summarizing the two national security exposes, headlined “The United States of America vs. Bill Keller,” he accused the Bush administration of whipping up “a partisan hatefest” against the Times, which had “really pissed him off.”

Wikileaks of US diplomatic cables

Keller’s decision to enter into a journalistic partnership with Julian Assange and Wikileaks bares his most callow and self-serving side. This side came into especially sharp relief that partnership dissolved and public criticism for the Times‘s cooperation with Assange grew more fierce in the face of the Wikileaks “diplo-dump”–a cache of 250,000 U.S. State Department cables, many classified that had been obtained by Assange through a low-level Army intelligence analyst who yet might be charged with treason. By that time Keller had begun distancing himself from Assange, who had been brought up on sexual misconduct charges in Sweden and whose Wikileaks colleagues had grown alienated from his megalomania and showboating.

More on the Times, Bill Keller and Wikileaks next week…

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