WSJ editorial twisted logic to blast NY Times, defend WSJ reporting on financial surveillance

››› ››› SIMON MALOY & ROB DIETZ

A Wall Street Journal editorial twisted logic by attacking The New York Times for publishing a June 23 article on a Treasury Department program designed to monitor terrorists' international financial transactions while simultaneously defending the Journal's own contemporaneous article on the Treasury Department program. In fact, there appears to be no relevant basis for differentiating between the two reports.

In a June 30 editorial titled "Fit and Unfit to Print," The Wall Street Journal twisted logic by attacking The New York Times for publishing a June 23 article on a Treasury Department program designed to monitor terrorists' international financial transactions while simultaneously defending the Journal's own contemporaneous article (subscription only) on the Treasury Department program. In fact, there appears to be no relevant basis for differentiating between the two reports; while the Times noted quoted experts raising legal and privacy concerns that the Journal omitted, the Times and Journal articles revealed nearly identical details about how the financial surveillance program operated -- the basis critics have cited for alleging that the Times report threatens national security. Moreover, as the Journal editorial itself noted, both newspapers were pursuing the story for "some time" before their respective articles were published, refuting the suggestion that the Journal merely pursued the story because its publication by the Times was imminent.

The Times and Journal articles revealed many of the same details of the Treasury Department program, in which the Department tapped into a huge database of international financial transactions maintained by a banking consortium known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT):

Times article

Journal article

Describes SWIFT as a "gatekeeper," which can track "[c]ustomers' names, bank account numbers and other identifying information can be retrieved."

Describes SWIFT as a "gatekeeper," which contains "identities of sender and recipients, the amount being transferred, the account numbers use and intermediate banks."

"Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift."

Headline of the Journal article: "Since 9/11, U.S. Has Used Subpoenas to Access Records From Fund-Transfer System"

Quoted Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department: "We are not on a fishing expedition."

Quoted Treasury Secretary John W. Snow: "It is not a fishing expedition."

"[T]he program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia."

"U.S. officials say the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program has been highly successful both in leading to the apprehension of terrorism suspects and in thwarting terrorist operations. People familiar with the program said, for example, that it yielded useful information on the bombings last July 7 in London."

"Underlying the government's legal analysis was the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which Mr. Bush invoked after the 9/11 attacks."

"He [Levey] said the subpoenas are based on a longstanding U.S. law dealing with economic sanctions, known as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act."

Moreover, both newspapers had apparently assigned reporters to cover the story. While the Journal editorial suggested that the Journal published its report on the financial surveillance program as a result of the Bush administration's approaching the paper with information about the program after the Times had said that the story was "going to become public anyway," the editorial also mentioned that the Journal -- and not just the Times -- was looking to publish a report on the Bush administration's use of SWIFT. Writing that the Bush administration had approached Journal reporter Glenn Simpson when it became clear that Times article was about to go to print, the editorial also noted that Simpson "has been working the terror finance beat for some time, including asking questions about the operations of Swift." Thus, it appears that the Journal had been pursuing a story on the financial surveillance program well before its June 23 report appeared.

Moreover, the Journal's defense of the paper's judgment in publishing the story is largely nonsensical. The Journal editorial claimed that its paper's report was "straighter" than the Times' because the Journal, unlike the Times, did not pursue "a violation-of-privacy angle." Since the editorial also noted that the Journal had used Bush administration "talking points" in the article, it appears that the Journal editorial believes a "straighter" report is one that uncritically publishes the administration's views while not noting the fact that outside American experts had concerns about the program (although the Journal article did report that disclosure of the program "may be controversial in Europe and within the world banking system").

From the Journal editorial:

[T]he 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.

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.

The Journal editorial had factual problems as well. The editorial ignored the Journal's own news reporting to assert that the Times' decision to publish its story alerted terrorists of U.S. efforts to track their international financial transactions. The editorial accused the Times of "expos[ing] a major weapon in the U.S. arsenal against terror financing," and dismissed Times executive editor Bill Keller's claim that it has already "been widely reported ... that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror," claiming: "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." But while the editorial attempted to separate the article in the Journal from the one in the Times, it failed to note that both articles reported that administration plans to monitor financing have long been public; as Media Matters for America has noted, the Bush administration has publicly stated many times that it would track terrorists' international financial statements. From the Journal's June 23 article:

While U.S. officials had never discussed the tracking program publicly until yesterday, they have repeatedly discussed in broad terms their efforts to engage in surveillance of cross-border financial activity around the world and have widely publicized the fruits of such surveillance in efforts to blacklist corrupt financial institutions.

Furthermore, the Journal editorial claimed that Keller's "argument that the terrorists surely knew about the Swift monitoring is his own leap of faith." But it is a "leap" Keller did not make; Keller, like the Journal story reporting the SWIFT program, said the U.S. has never hidden its intentions to track financial records, and that the terrorists "know this." But Keller did not claim that the terrorists specifically knew about the government's use of SWIFT. From his June 25 letter explaining his rationale for publishing the story:

It has been widely reported -- indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department -- that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.

Additionally, the Journal editorial defended the paper against those claiming that it should have declined to publish the article. According to the editorial:

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.

The editorial's defense of its paper's actions -- claiming that the government never told them not to publish -- rests on the unlikely scenario that the government would, in fact, approach a newspaper with information, and then urge them not to publish it.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal
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