Some commenters and bloggers have suggested that the Wall Street Journal is equally culpable as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times for leaking classified information about a successful anti-terror program. Now that I have had a chance to read the full Wall Street Journal piece, I disagree.
Based on my reading of the relevant articles, the responsible parties here are only the New York Times and the L.A. Times. The Wall Street Journal simply printed a story using on-the-record interviews with named government officials who knew the East and West Coast Timeses were going to print the story anyway.
The key questions are: 1) which papers were conducting an investigation by speaking with anonymous officials about classified information? and 2) which papers were asked by the government not to print the stories? The answer to both questions, based upon reading the stories, is: the New York Times and the L.A. Times — not the Wall Street Journal.
As to question #1, the New York Times story reported:
Nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives discussed aspects of the Swift operation with The New York Times on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. Some of those officials expressed reservations about the program, saying that what they viewed as an urgent, temporary measure had become permanent nearly five years later without specific Congressional approval or formal authorization.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Times article reported:
More than a dozen current and former U.S. officials discussed the program with The Times on condition of anonymity, citing its sensitive nature.
The Wall Street Journal article, which I can’t link because it is behind a paid subscription wall, contains no similar passage. John Snow and Stuart Levey are quoted by name. The words “anonymous” and “anonymity” do not appear in the article. The article contains no clear indication that any information was provided to the paper by anonymous officials concerned about the classified nature of the program. Instead, the article says:
U.S. officials agreed to discuss the program after concluding that knowledge of its existence was emerging and public disclosure was inevitable.
This is a clear reference to the imminent publication of articles by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
As to question #2, the New York Times reported a statement from its editor, discussing the pleas that government officials had made for the paper not to print the article:
The Bush administration has made no secret of its campaign to disrupt terrorist financing, and President Bush, Treasury officials and others have spoken publicly about those efforts. Administration officials, however, asked The New York Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness. They also enlisted several current and former officials, both Democrat and Republican, to vouch for its value.
Bill Keller, the newspaper’s executive editor, said: “We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”
And the L.A. Times similarly reported a statement from its editor:
Bush administration officials asked The Times not to publish information about the program, contending that disclosure could damage its effectiveness and that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect the public.
Dean Baquet, editor of The Times, said: “We weighed the government’s arguments carefully, but in the end we determined that it was in the public interest to publish information about the extraordinary reach of this program. It is part of the continuing national debate over the aggressive measures employed by the government.”
By contrast, the AP reports:
The Wall Street Journal received no request to withhold the story, said Daniel Hertzberg, a senior deputy managing editor. He declined to comment further.
It sounds to me like the Wall Street Journal, like the Washington Post, printed on-the-record reactions from government officials who knew that the N.Y. Times and L.A. Times were going to publish articles anyway — because these officials had pleaded with the editors of those papers not to print the stories, to no avail.
Direct your anger at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Leave the Wall Street Journal alone.
UPDATE in extended entry.