War on the press 

Recently the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial writers have written thousands of words to say that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times should not have printed stories about the United States forcing a Belgian banking company to tell who is sending money to terrorists. The company is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, better known as SWIFT.

The editorials are vague as to how the revelation of this bit of journalism has harmed the United States or any of the American soldiers fighting in Iraq. But suddenly President Bush and his admirers have decided that to criticize the press is a way to raise his standard in the polls that recently are in the low 30s. President Bush (and the Democrat-Gazette editorialists) can’t stand the threat that in four months the people might elect enough Democrats that he might have to spend his last two years in the White House with Democrats leading the House or the Senate.

Happily, so far the Democrat-Gazette writers haven’t said that the reporters ought to be arrested or their newspapers put out of business. They simply say that it is improper for the newspapers to tell Americans what their government is doing during a war if the president doesn’t want them to. While the writers say that this kind of reporting when a war is going on is improper, they at least say that the people who should be punished are the government employees who slipped this information to the press.

But many people really want to punish the reporters and the newspapers. Vice President Dick Cheney said that reporters like these “take it upon themselves making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people.” Rep. Peter King, R-NY, thinks what the newspapers have done is “disgraceful” and wants criminal charges brought against the reporters and the newspapers. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-KY, wants the government to investigate the New York Times for treason. Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, who wants to be elected President in 2008, got on TV Sunday and said he was very worried that the newspapers had printed the stories.

Last week the House approved a bill that condemned news organizations for publishing stories about the government tracking global banking transactions during a war. Because of the Republicans, it passed easily, 227 to 183. I was glad to see that two of Arkansas’s Democrats, Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, voted no. Democrat Mike Ross and Republican John Boozman voted yes. Before the vote, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., made a speech that said: “It doesn’t even pass the laugh test when members of Congress start talking about criminal prosecution against newspapers.”

After all, the First Amendment of the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom... of the press.”

It was interesting how quickly the White House developed the tough feelings about the newspaper stories. Two weeks ago when the four stories came out Tony Snow, the President’s new press secretary, said little, yes or no, about the stories when he faced reporters at the daily press conference, but three days later Snow was slamming the newspapers and the stories, accusing the New York Times “putting people’s right to know” over “somebody’s right to live.”

Really, it’s difficult to believe that any soldier might be killed because of these stories. The U.S. wisely went to SWIFT shortly after Osama bin Laden’s airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Since then 7,800 banks in 200 countries have known that the U.S. watches the movement of money on SWIFT — a wise way to find out from where al-Qaeda and other terrorists are getting money.

In 2002, the United Nations reported to all its members that the United States was monitoring international bank transactions. In 2003, Treasury Secretary John Snow took a group of newspaper writers on a six-day tour to show how the nation was going to find out what countries dealt with money going to and from nations that were fighting the United States.

So it’s difficult to see how anybody is going to get hurt physically because of what the government did in going to SWIFT right after the Al-Qaeda attack. Rich people all over the world are aware that Americans want to know if banks have money to be spent for attacking the United States.

I’ve read statements from the editors of the four newspapers that used the stories. They remind me of my 14 years as an Arkansas editor of a weekly and a daily newspaper. Of course, I never had to decide whether to print stories that could affect the nation, but I was occasionally asked not to print stories that mayors, aldermen, police chiefs and one U.S. Senator said would hurt the community. I think I went ahead and printed 80 percent of them because I thought my readers needed to read the stories. Frankly, I was happier later to write editorials and columns like those guys at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but I hope I wouldn’t have been as partial.


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