Should Times have blown cover on anti-terror operation?


Any journalist or aspiring journalist out there would argue that the public has a “right to know.” Ideally, it is what drives the journalism profession. This sense of duty to keep the public informed and act as that fourth branch of government that the media is often referred to as a right to have information. But, is there also a need to not know? Are there situations where sensitive stories should be kept under wraps for security purposes or is everything that reporters are lucky enough to get their hand on fair game? The War on Terror has given these questions entirely new complexity.

The New York Times certainly has a reputation of falling under the side of need to know in almost all cases, a point proven by its constant reporting on terror plots and detailed intelligence community capabilities. The Times went the way of public service again in late June 2006 when they revealed an in-depth description of a CIA program called Swift.

Swift was a banking program out of Brussels, Belgium, that monitored and tracked the financial transactions of suspected terrorists. The Times ran the story, with the headline “Bank Data is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror,” despite the U.S. intelligence community’s fears that it would cause a national security threat and compromise the usefulness of the program and its intelligence. The article held almost nothing back, describing details on how the program worked, who it targeted, and who was involved in its workings.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts are of course of extreme importance, but some would argue that this means they should be even more transparent. The intelligence community, especially the CIA, is under constant scrutiny for the “secretive” nature of their work, but is there a point where this media-driven transparency stops being an issue of civil rights and free speech and crosses over to one of national security or even criminal infringements that involve leaking classified information?

According to a 2006 article from The Weekly Standard magazine, the answer to this question is ‘yes’, and The New York Times has long since passed this point. The Weekly Standard article makes no qualms about calling calling The Times a full blown “national security threat,” and an institution that loves attention and power.

Which side of this issue you stand on depends on your views on the media’s role in society. But, the bottom line is that the the information is out there for the world to see. With today’s era of vast information sharing there is no doubt that people from all corners of the globe can have access to The Times article. This may have compromised Swift’s intelligence purposes, but it is up to the media to ask, ‘is that risk worth it?’

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