Treason and the Times

The White House won't say whether it's seeking criminal prosecution of reporters who broke the bank-monitoring story.

Published June 26, 2006 7:49PM (EDT)

The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau and James Risen reported last year that the Bush administration was monitoring telephone calls without the warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Last week, they broke the news that the Bush administration has been monitoring and examining the bank records of thousands of American citizens.

You might call Lichtblau and Risen "journalists," and good ones at that. Rep. Peter King has another name for them: "recidivists."

King, a Republican from New York, said over the weekend that he wants to see the Times prosecuted for running the bank-monitoring story and thereby "putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people."

Responsible Republicans would like to put a lid on that kind of blame-the-messenger craziness, right? Well, you'd think, but it's not playing out that way. The president said today that the media's decision to go with the bank records story -- the Times wasn't the only news outlet to get it -- was "disgraceful" and "does great harm to the United States of America." White House press secretary Tony Snow went even farther, saying that the "New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know in some cases might override somebody's right to live."

Snow declined to say whether the Times or its reporters would be subject to a criminal referral, but that didn't stop the former Fox News man from lecturing them from the White House podium. "One of the things [Times editor] Bill Keller said is, "It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective,'" Snow said. "Well, it is your job to exercise editorial judgment. All of us got into this business -- I've been in journalism 27 years -- when I got into the business, one of the things that everybody learns is you have to exercise editorial judgment. I daresay many people in this room have been faced with difficult decisions in their careers, and probably all of us have had stories where we killed them because there was somebody's own privacy right or interest involved."

It would be a fine argument, if only it were the slightest bit relevant. Yes, reporters sometimes have to be careful about violating somebody's "privacy right or interest." But the Times report didn't do that; the Bush administration's bank-monitoring program did. So if Snow is really concerned about "privacy rights," he ought to be looking more critically at the intrusive programs his boss has approved and a little less so at the reporters who revealed them to the American people.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Espionage The New York Times War Room