New Furor Erupts as Spying Secret Is Compromised

Daily News Article   —   Posted on June 23, 2006

(by Josh Gerstein, – A fresh barrage of criticism is erupting over the decision of The New York Times to disclose last night another classified surveillance program aimed at gathering information about terrorist plots.

“The president is concerned that, once again, the New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is protecting the American people,” a White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said last night. “We know that terrorists look for any clue about the weapons we’re using to fight them and now, with this exposure, they have more information and it increases the challenge for our law enforcement and intelligence officials.”

The Times report, which appears in today’s editions and was posted last evening on the paper’s Web site, details the federal government’s use of subpoenas to gather large troves of data from a Belgium-based consortium that handles international bank transfers, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as Swift.

The Times quoted an unnamed former government official describing Swift as “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” of data on global banking operations.

The newspaper said the surveillance effort helped lead to the capture in Thailand in 2003 of a top Al Qaeda op erative, Riduan Isamuddin, who also went by the name Hambali.

The Times reported that it decided to report publicly on the program despite requests by administration officials that the newspaper not publish the story. The officials argued that the disclosure could reduce the effort’s effectiveness, the newspaper said.

The executive editor of the Times, Bill Keller, said the newspaper was not persuaded. “We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration,” Mr. Keller said. “We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.”

The Times was already facing calls for its criminal prosecution in connection with a December report on a classified National Security Agency program for warrantless surveillance of telephone calls between America and abroad that are thought to involve people affiliated with terrorism. In that instance, President Bush reportedly summoned Mr. Keller and the publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., to the Oval Office to ask that the story be killed.

The disclosure led to a series of lawsuits by civil liberties advocates. Some lawmakers also have denounced the program as unlawful and an impermissible expansion of executive authority.

A conservative magazine editor who is one of the leading advocates of prosecuting the Times for its December story, Gabriel Schoenfeld, told The New York Sun last night that the newspaper’s latest move could increase their legal jeopardy.

“They’re courting prosecution. … They’re increasingly behaving like if we were in the middle of World War II and they learned of plans to invade Normandy. Because they decided it’s a matter of public interest, they’d publish it,” Mr. Schoenfeld said. “I think this is reckless and likely to encourage Attorney General Gonzales to prosecute them, if not for this story, for some of the other things they’ve done.”

Mr. Schoenfeld said that the latest disclosure by the Times about the financial surveillance was less clear cut as a legal violation because it did not appear to involve communications intelligence, which is specially protected under federal law.

Mr. Schoenfeld said the new report would increase anger against the paper. “They really are testing the limits of congressional and executive branch patience. There’s a lot of displeasure with what they’re doing,” said Mr. Schoenfeld, who edits Commentary magazine and writes a weekly column on chess for the Sun.

However, the editor said he still considered a prosecution unlikely, on balance. “I’m not sure the Bush administration has a stomach for a fight with the media of that magnitude, but it’s become more and more clear that it’s necessary,” Mr. Schoenfeld said.

Reports about the financial surveillance program appeared yesterday on the Web sites of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The latter two seem to have learned of the Times’s reporting, which has been under way for some time.

The Treasury Department confirmed the existence of the program.

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at