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At War With the Times

By Barry Casselman

The New York Times, as Michael Barone wrote recently, has declared war. Since when is the New York Times a sovereign nation? It's not even a democratic institution.

I thought only sovereign nations or terrorist groups declared war. (Perhaps the New York Times has seceded from the union and has declared itself a duchy, like Luxembourg, or a principality, like Monaco.)

What's worse, however, than the fact that the New York Times has declared war, is upon whom this war has been declared.

Not the terrorists in Iraq. Not the terrorist regime in the Palestinian territories. Not al Qaeda. Not those nations trying to build nuclear weapons so that they can destabilize whole regions of the world. Not drug traffickers from South America. Not feudal and tribal dictatorships in Africa that are prolonging and exacerbating the human suffering on that continent. Not the United Nations, which continues to legitimize human rights abuses around the world.

No, it is not any of these.

Instead, the New York Times has declared war on the government of the United States of America.

How is this possible? It's happened through the unilateral decision of the New York Times (as well as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal) to disclose secret U.S. government operations aimed at monitoring terrorist financial operations throughout the world.

Let's be clear. This is not about the right of the New York Times to examine and criticize the Bush administration. That is its constitutional right, which it exercises every day.

Some might suggest that the New York Times is notably one-sided and continually makes serious mistakes in its reporting and analysis. But the press in America is free to express itself (even, on occasion, make an ass of itself) within certain broad legal and commonsense limits. These limits include laws prohibiting libel and the knowing dissemination of false information or information that creates an immediate security threat (such as revealing troop movements).

When it became known that the New York Times was about to publish information about the government's monitoring of terrorists' financing, the Bush administration implored it not to do so. The New York Times ignored this request.

In explaining his reasons for exposing sensitive secret operations, Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, said that some might question whether the operations were proper and legal. The editor of the Los Angeles Times echoed this rationale.

So these two papers have declared themselves to be sovereign nations. These editors have said that they can decide what is or is not proper foreign policy, an executive-branch function; whether or not the law is what it should be, a legislative-branch function; and, finally, whether or not the actions of the government are within the law, a judicial-branch function.

It's quite a neat package. A few individuals who work for a business enterprise that is answerable only to a handful of corporate owners have taken on the role of a sovereign nation. Not only that, they summarily ignore the consequences of their actions.

Everyone has the right to criticize the government. But neither the New York Times nor anyone else has the right to deliberately disclose information harmful to the national security or to the safety of our fighting men and women in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other theaters of the War on Terror around the world.

We are in a protracted worldwide war against violent and unscrupulous terrorists. In wartime, the need for the press to exercise commonsense restraint in disclosing secret operations is obvious.

The New York Times has a clear political viewpoint. It opposes the war in Iraq. It opposes President Bush and his administration. To hold such a viewpoint and act on it is its right under the American system of government. Wartime does not eliminate or abridge this right. But none of our constitutional rights is absolute. Each right is sometimes in conflict with other rights or responsibilities.

The New York Times is the most well-known newspaper in America. Until several years ago, before a series of plagiarism and reporting scandals, it was also generally regarded as one of America's best newspapers.

But a closet full of Pulitzer prizes does not prove excellence or credibility. Although many of its writers and reporters are outstanding, and many of its news stories are praiseworthy and useful, it no longer provides consistently fair and credible journalism. This latest example of its arrogance and recklessness only further diminishes its reputation and its value to American journalism.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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