Sunday, October 22, 2006

NY Times Public Editor Now Says Times Erred in Revealing Secret Bank Data Surveillance Program!

In a turnabout that Michelle Malkin rightly describes as "Un.Freaking.Believable," New York Times "public editor" (i.e., ombudsman) Bryan Calame has reversed field from the position that he took in a July 2, 2006 column. In a blurb buried in his media column in the Times, Calame now says that the Times should not have revealed the existence of a top secret program designed to detect transfers of cash by terrorists. While Calame is to be commended by his willingness to re-examine his former position and criticize the actions of the newspaper that employs him, Tom Maguire at Just One Minute summarizes the situation well in three words, "Toothpaste meet tube." For an excellent description of Calame's change-of-heart, a good roundup of reactions on the conservative blogosphere, and overall fine analysis, check out the story at Squiggler.

Here is Calame's reasoning for his reversal of position:
"Those two factors are really what bring me to this corrective commentary: the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused. I had mentioned both as being part of 'the most substantial argument against running the story,' but that reference was relegated to the bottom of my column.
I haven’t found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws. Although data-protection authorities in Europe have complained that the formerly secret program violated their rules on privacy, there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken. Data-protection rules are often stricter in Europe than in America, and have been a frequent source of friction.
Also, there still haven’t been any abuses of private data linked to the program, which apparently has continued to function. That, plus the legality issue, has left me wondering what harm actually was avoided when The Times and two other newspapers disclosed the program. The lack of appropriate oversight — to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention — was a key reason I originally supported publication. I think, however, that I gave it too much weight.
In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isn’t a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a “secret” program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism."


So, the program was legal, there is no evidence of abusive use of private data, and Calame does not understand "what harm actually was avoided" when the NY Times (and the LA Times) disclosed the details of a top secret anti-terrorism tool. (The third newspaper referred to by Calame, the Wall Street Journal, only published its story on the program after the NY Times had disclosed its existence and described its workings in detail.) Does he even pause to consider what harm was potentially done by the NY Times?

The Hedgehog gave its take on the situation back on July 11, 2006: "A Law Unenforced is a Law Ignored--Prosecute the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times."

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