Dean Baquet Publishes Letter Attempting to Justify the L.A. Times’s Exposure of a Classified and Successful Counterterrorism Program
Editor Dean Baquet has published an open letter to readers explaining the paper’s decision to publish classified details about the legal and effective Swift counterterror program.
Baquet fails to offer any compelling justification for eviscerating this legal and successful counterterrorism program. And Baquet fails to recognize that his decision was made on the basis of woefully inadequate information.
There is little I can say that I haven’t already said in several other posts, but let me point out some of the more glaring problems. Baquet says:
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government’s assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion 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.
We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department’s program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.
In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.
I remain stunned that Mr. Baquet believes his newspaper was in a position to have “weighed” the effect that disclosure would have on counterterrorism efforts. The program’s chief success has been the capture of Hambali, the mastermind of the Bali bombing. Yet Baquet’s own Washington Bureau Chief, Doyle McManus, has admitted: “The first I knew of that was when I read it in the New York Times.”
Indeed, a close read of the L.A. Times article does suggest that the program has been ineffective. But a close read of the articles published by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal shows something quite different. Not only did the government capture Hambali, but it also confirmed the identity of a major Iraqi terror facilitator, and learned information regarding the 2005 London terror bombings.
The bottom line, Mr. Baquet, is that you are not in a position to weigh anything if you don’t know all the facts. And your paper clearly didn’t.
We are not out to get the president. This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists. We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda’s role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment.
But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That’s the role of the press in our democracy.
The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost or how much we are criticized. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” That’s the edict we followed.
I’m not going to follow the lead of many of my conservative brethren and accuse you of being out to get the President. I think people can make up their own minds on that issue. But I do accuse you of having blown this decision, and you can’t hide behind Thomas Jefferson now.
This was a tough call for me, as I’m sure it was for the editors of other papers that chose to publish articles on the subject. But history tells us over and over that the nation’s founders were right in pushing the press into this role. President Kennedy persuaded the press not to report the Bay of Pigs planning. He later said he regretted this, that he might have called it off had someone exposed it.
History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish. No one believes, in retrospect, that there was any true reason to withhold the Pentagon Papers, although the government fought vigorously to keep them from being published by the New York Times and the Washington Post. As Justice Hugo Black put it in that case: “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.”
I don’t expect all of our readers to agree with my call. But understand that it was one taken with serious reflection and supported by much history.
And inadequate facts.
Notably missing from your piece, Mr. Baquet, is any true justification for printing the article. We learn that you supposedly agonized over the decision, and that the Founding Fathers loved a free press, and that you really, really aren’t out to get Bush.
But what is the affirmative argument for publication? Surely you see that publishing such sensitive details requires one. But I don’t see it.
Your Washington Bureau Chief has said that the key factors he looked at in making the decision to publish were: “Is this legal? Are there safeguards?”
Yet, as I have demonstrated, the evidence in all the articles suggests that the program is legal, that it does have adequate safeguards, and that key Congressional committees were briefed.
Given these facts, where is the compelling public interest in revealing classified details of a legal and effective anti-terror program?
If this is the best you have to offer as a justification, Mr. Baquet, then you have made a terrible mistake, that may have tragic consequences for our country.