Patterico's Pontifications

6/30/2006

Patterico Vindicated on WSJ Role in Breaking Swift Story

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 12:52 am

The Wall Street Journal has printed a lengthy explanation of how it came to publish an article about the Swift anti-terror program on June 22. The piece completely vindicates my view, expressed in this post, that the Journal did not bear any responsibility for breaking the story.

In my post, I reasoned that the Journal‘s article relied entirely upon on-the-record sources. Moreover, it is clear that the Administration did not ask the Journal not to publish the story. Accordingly, unlike the New York Times and L.A. Times, we have no clear indication that the paper was prepared to ignore the government’s entreaties and publish over the objection of the Administration.

The editors of the Journal explain:

[T]he facts are that the [New York] Times’s decision was notably different from the Journal’s.

According to Tony Fratto, Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, he first contacted the Times some two months ago. He had heard Times reporters were asking questions about the highly classified program involving Swift, an international banking consortium that has cooperated with the U.S. to follow the money making its way to the likes of al Qaeda or Hezbollah. Mr. Fratto went on to ask the Times not to publish such a story on grounds that it would damage this useful terror-tracking method.

Sometime later, Secretary John Snow invited Times Executive Editor Bill Keller to his Treasury office to deliver the same message. Later still, Mr. Fratto says, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the leaders of the 9/11 Commission, made the same request of Mr. Keller. Democratic Congressman John Murtha and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte also urged the newspaper not to publish the story.

The Times decided to publish anyway, letting Mr. Fratto know about its decision a week ago Wednesday. The Times agreed to delay publishing by a day to give Mr. Fratto a chance to bring the appropriate Treasury official home from overseas. Based on his own discussions with Times reporters and editors, Mr. Fratto says he believed “they had about 80% of the story, but they had about 30% of it wrong.” So the Administration decided that, in the interest of telling a more complete and accurate story, they would declassify a series of talking points about the program. They discussed those with the Times the next day, June 22.

This, by the way, may be one reason that the Administration is showing no visible signs of wanting to prosecute the newspapers: the information published by the papers had apparently been declassified before publication.

[UPDATE: Actually, it would be more accurate to say “some of” the information published by the papers had apparently been declassified. We have no way of knowing whether the details published by the New York Times and L.A. Times went beyond the set of talking points that was declassified. On reflection, my guess is that it probably did. But I don’t know.]

This in no way morally excuses the New York Times and L.A. Times, who (according to the public statements of their editors) made independent decisions to publish regardless of the Administration’s view. But, if this account is accurate, it probably provides a legal defense to the newspapers against a charge of publishing classified information.

This legal defense would not extend to the original leakers, however. So, while the more rabid among you will probably have to surrender your dreams of prosecuting the papers, we are still in a strong position to move forward with my favored plan of attack: prioritizing the hunt for the leakers — including tossing reporters in the pokey, Patrick Fitzgerald-style, if they refuse to cough up their sources.

Getting back to the story: once the New York Times announced its intent to publish, that is where the Journal got involved. Again, from Journal editors:

Around the same time, Treasury contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information. Mr. Simpson has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift, and it is a common practice in Washington for government officials to disclose a story that is going to become public anyway to more than one reporter. Our guess is that Treasury also felt Mr. Simpson would write a straighter story than the Times, which was pushing a violation-of-privacy angle; on our reading of the two June 23 stories, he did.

We recount all this because 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.” But anyone who understands how publishing decisions are made knows that different newspapers make up their minds differently.

Some argue that the Journal should have still declined to run the antiterror story. However, at no point did Treasury officials tell us not to publish the information. And while Journal editors knew the Times was about to publish the story, Treasury officials did not tell our editors they had urged the Times not to publish. What Journal editors did know is that they had senior government officials providing news they didn’t mind seeing in print. If this was a “leak,” it was entirely authorized.

This passage rather cleverly downplays the apparent fact, disclosed in Howard Kurtz’s column the other day, that the Journal‘s Glenn Simpson had indeed been nosing around the Swift program in the weeks preceding the publication of the stories. But, as I have said previously,

for all we know, the Wall Street Journal had no intention of publishing the story once they learned that the program was safe, legal, and effective. They may well have decided — like the Washington Post and the entire blogosphere — that once the New York Times had spilled the beans, it was now news and had to be discussed.

This conclusion is even stronger when we consider what is, in my mind, the crucial distinction between the Wall Street Journal, on one hand, and the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, on the other. Unlike the East and West Coast Timeses, the chances are that the Journal would not have chosen to publish the story if the Administration had asked them to withhold it:

Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the Administration asked us not to? Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not. Mr. Keller’s argument that the terrorists surely knew about the Swift monitoring is his own leap of faith. The terror financiers might have known the U.S. could track money from the U.S., but they might not have known the U.S. could follow the money from, say, Saudi Arabia. The first thing an al Qaeda financier would have done when the story broke is check if his bank was part of Swift.

Just as dubious is the defense in a Times editorial this week that “The Swift story bears no resemblance to security breaches, like disclosure of troop locations, that would clearly compromise the immediate safety of specific individuals.” In this asymmetric war against terrorists, intelligence and financial tracking are the equivalent of troop movements. They are America’s main weapons.

This is the key distinction, as I noted in my post:

Merely investigating is not a culpable act until it is coupled with a second act: making the decision to publish over the protest of government officials, even though the investigation reveals that the program is safe, legal, effective, and subject to oversight.

Critically, the Wall Street Journal did not publish over the protest of government officials. By contrast, the L.A. Times and New York Times did.

The left will, of course, simply call the editors of the Wall Street Journal liars. But in my view, their explanation is convincing, and their paper is utterly vindicated — as is my previous analysis.

22 Responses to “Patterico Vindicated on WSJ Role in Breaking Swift Story”

  1. Patterico, so do you ask the WSJ reporters who was leaking the story and jail them if they refuse to tell?

    [Yes — assuming that anyone leaked. We don’t know that. We know that he was asking questions. That’s all. — P]

    And “speaking for the editorial columns” is artful wording on the part of the WSJ, what about the rest of the paper which is as far to the left as the editorial page is to the right?

    [I’d like to see a statement from them. The fact remains that they haven’t announced that they arrogantly weighed the factors and decided to publish despite Administration requests not to. — P]

    James B. Shearer (34fb65)

  2. James B., you’re up early too. Our host wrote: “This, by the way, may be one reason that the Administration is showing no visible signs of wanting to prosecute the newspapers: the information published by the papers had apparently been declassified before publication.”

    You and I speculated about this in an earlier thread. Which begs the question: Why are we getting our undies in a knot over this when the Administration itself is a complacent cuckold?

    nk (b57bfb)

  3. I’m always amazed at the combination of statements made by pro-leakers on this story:

    1. Every terrorist knew about it.

    2. The public had a right to know that the government was doing something wrong.

    If every terrorist knew about it, why didn’t they leak it to the Times? Why did the papers have to ask the government about it at all? And if the terrorists knew about it for years, because it was so obvious, why did it take the Times so long to catch on, especially when they proposed something like this back in ’01? Are Times reporters that much dumber than the terrorists?

    gawaine (e49fe7)

  4. At the WSJ, the news and editorial page are completely independent. Therefore the opinion guys can’t speak for the news halves. If the wording seems awkward, it’s still true.

    See-Dubya (afdbd2)

  5. Yes, Patterico overlooks the real lesson here: That Wall — that beautiful lovely Wall between the WSJ news staff and the WSJ opinion staff. This is why it takes a week to get a WSJ editorial on a story WSJ helped break. That Wall goes back to Vermont Royster

    Don Surber (1e4911)

  6. How much money is changing hands on these ‘leaks of top secret information’? Nothing comes free in today’s world.

    Scrapiron (a90377)

  7. Scrapiron, sources are generally paid in slanted coverage not money. If official A regularly talks to reporter X, reporter X will slant his stories to favor official A (and sometimes A’s friends). On the other hand if official A never helps reporter X, X may start writing stories about the ineffective job A is doing and how A is losing the confidence of the President and may be on the way out etc.

    James B. Shearer (fc887e)

  8. This episode reminds me of an incident in Truman’s senatorial career.

    He was chairing a committee investigating war profiteering and doing a bang-up job of it.

    A reporter came to him with a dossier of vague rumors and gossip on something called “Manhattan.” The reporter hadn’t published anything yet but thought Truman should look into it.

    Truman did. In a meeting with Marshall and Stimson, they took the dossier from Truman and instructed him never to speak the word “Manhattan” again.

    He took their direction and when he later became president, Stimson came to the Oval Office and laid out before Truman the whole story. Truman thanked Stimson and Marshall for doing their duty. The reporter became Truman’s press secratary.

    Where are men today like Truman in the Democratic Party and that reporter in the press?

    Whitehall (efb88d)

  9. Before you all get too far down the road, I think it’s worthwhile to suggest that you read the full WSJ editorial piece before you reach your conclusions–or shoot your mouth off.

    I understand that the Administration, in its efforts to dissuade Messrs.Lichblau, Rosen, Keller et al, actually declassified some material so that our leakers could get their story a little straighter. The results of that effort–a New York Times “screw you, we’re going to publish anyway”, were probably predictable. Once a piss ant, always a piss ant is the rule that applies with the NYT. [If that’s too Texas for y’all, I can translate.]

    Punch Sulzburger released some ridiculous and incoherent statement in Editor & Publisher today–something to the effect that he trusted the news side more than the editorial side of the WSJ–but I couldn’t see how that contributed to his defense of the NYT.

    Mike Myers (28fa0a)

  10. “Would the Journal have published the story had we discovered it as the Times did, and had the Administration asked us not to? Speaking for the editorial columns, our answer is probably not.” – Wall Street Journal

    And no one’s speaking for the people who actually did take the decision.

    So the WSJ published formerly classified information that had been a very badly-kept secret among counter-intelligence and banking types and was half-buried on a UN website.

    As the WSJ pulled the trigger an hour or two behind the NYT, it has no “moral” culpability, because the editorial side – which admits it didn’t have the call – would *probably* never have used it first.

    Harry Houdini lives.

    They must have had knowledge in the two months this operetta was playing out that the government was pleading a case against publication.

    “Around the same time, Treasury contacted Journal reporter Glenn Simpson to offer him the same declassified information. Mr. Simpson has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift”

    Editorialists exempt themselves from any blame and responsibility but proceed to emasculate a beat reporter, offering evidence that he fashioned his story off handouts. He can’t speak for himself, nor can the chain of command on that side of the paper.

    I’d give a lot to hear Simpson’s side of this.

    Why did they wait till Friday to show the colors?

    steve (db6ba8)

  11. This, by the way, may be one reason that the Administration is showing no visible signs of wanting to prosecute the newspapers: the information published by the papers had apparently been declassified before publication.

    So everyone bitching about publishing classified information? wrong. great.

    [No. We don’t know that, and I need to do an update to clarify that we don’t know. But if some limited info was declassified, it was only after the NYT decided to run the story. The NYT prompted the limited declassification with its irresposible decision to publish. — P]

    actus (6234ee)

  12. The NYT prompted the limited declassification with its irresposible decision to publish

    Is that wrong? The government acquiesced. You said we should let the government decide what we know. So they decided to tell.

    actus (6234ee)

  13. Is that wrong? The government acquiesced. You said we should let the government decide what we know. So they decided to tell.

    That’s exactly right, actus! The government decided on its own! The NYT didn’t have anything to do with it! You’re brilliant! Keep up the excellent and insightful comments! Please!

    Patterico (50c3cd)

  14. The NYT didn’t have anything to do with it!

    Who said that?

    actus (6234ee)

  15. Patrick–

    The Sulzberger pimps can’t hide their dirty tricks. They talk about abuses by the NSA and other American intelligence agencies, but they go overboard to cover their own dirty tracks when it comes to lying about Stalin’s genocide against Ukrainian peasants in the 1930’s. We now know that Pinch the “pimp” and Bill Keller went to great efforts to prevent the Pulitzer Committee from withdrawing the prize awarded to Stalin’s well-known apologist Walter Duranty for his coverups of the genocide against Ukrainian peasants. But yet, we real Americans never hear about these Sulbergerian crimes against humanity!!

    Take it from there!

    Mescalero (8a08e9)

  16. “Who said that?”

    You implied it when you said the govt “acquiesced.”

    sharon (fecb65)

  17. You implied it when you said the govt “acquiesced.”

    That doesn’t imply that the NYY had nothing to do with it. It implies the opposite.

    actus (6234ee)

  18. “That doesn’t imply that the NYY had nothing to do with it. It implies the opposite.”

    Yes, exactly. Apparently 1 line snippets don’t recognize sarcasm.

    sharon (fecb65)

  19. Yes, exactly. Apparently 1 line snippets don’t recognize sarcasm.

    What are you talking about?

    actus (6234ee)

  20. Actus, what part of Laconia was your family from? 😉

    nk (947b03)

  21. “Where are men today like Truman in the Democratic Party and that reporter in the press”

    Heh, if that happened today this administration would have taken the dossier from Truman, told him never to say Manhattan again. Then they would have given the story to the WSJ after it ran an editorial favoring their position on getting rid of the estate tax for the rich.

    Boonton (eb9c98)

  22. Actus, what part of Laconia was your family from?

    I don’t get the reference.

    actus (ebc508)


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