The disclosure by The New York Times and other major papers that the Bush administration has been monitoring the financial transactions of suspected terrorists perhaps should have come as no surprise.
President Bush himself, speaking on Sept. 24, 2001, had asserted that would happen: "We're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice, we will work with their governments and ask them to freeze or block terrorist ability to access funds in foreign accounts."
But in choosing to reveal specifics of the monitoring effort, called the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, the Times in particular has come in for an unusual level of vitriol from top officials in the Bush White House, their allies in Congress, and the corps of conservative commentators. Vice President Dick Cheney called the Times's efforts "very damaging" and the paper's recent Pulitzer Prize for a similar story a "disgrace." Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, denounced the Times piece as "treasonous" and called for criminal prosecution. National Review Online called on the administration to withdraw the Times's White House press credentials.
"This is an administration that has been more irritated by the press than most," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a veteran Washington observer going back to his days in the Eisenhower White House. "The New York Times has been a pretty serious, consistent critic of the war. The Times is an obvious, almost iconic, symbolic organization for this Republican administration to use."
On Tuesday, House Republican leaders were drafting a resolution to condemn the stories by the Times and the other papers. While a "free and objective independent media is necessary to the maintenance of liberty, the New York Times and other media outlets that solicit the discovery of sensitive information and unilaterally determine to publish such information could be placing lives at risk," the draft said, according to the Associated Press.
The Times piece, published shortly before similar articles in The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, comes at a time when the administration has recovered a bit of its momentum. The president's poll ratings have crept upward amid some good news out of Iraq. His top adviser, Karl Rove, is now free of legal worries, and can focus on the midterm elections.
But Bush and the Republican- controlled Congress still face an uphill climb. Most major polls show the president below 40 percent in public approval of his performance. And polls continue to report, by a double-digit margin, that the public would prefer Democratic control of Congress.
So when The New York Times comes out with the latest exposé on a technique in the war on terror, this is red meat to the president and his supporters. "The New York Times threw them a life preserver and they grabbed it," says Mr. Hess.
Still, behind the bluster lie serious questions. Have the latest press revelations in fact endangered the ability of the administration to track the terrorist money trail by alerting terrorists to its methods? And as conservative politicians and activists continue to call for the prosecution of journalists who reveal government secrets, will that have a chilling effect on the media?
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, says it will take some time to determine damage to intelligence operations. On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas sent a letter to the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, asking him to assess any damage caused by both the articles on the financial monitoring program as well as previous news reports disclosing a program run by the National Security Agency that monitored phone calls and e-mails of people with suspected connections to Al Qaeda.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, sees the war over press disclosures as a sign that the system of checks and balances has grown dangerously thin – and that the media represent the only effective check on potential abuses by the White House.
Professor Turley says he believes that the press disclosures – including also Washington Post coverage of secret CIA prisons in foreign countries – are "towering examples of why we have the First Amendment [which protects freedom of the press] and how important a free press is to the values of good government. What makes this period so extraordinary is that virtual absence of any other check on abuses of power in government."
Newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, have the resources to fight legal battles with the government, Turley notes. But the threat of prosecution "will have a chilling effect on journalists, especially those working for smaller news organizations," he says. "It's far easier to chill someone who's writing for the River Bend Times than The New York Times."