The New York Times editor Bill Keller justified their decision to alert Al Qaeda and other terror networks that we are tracking their financial transactions by saying that the story was "in the public interest".
There are a few other things which I would like to remind the Times are also in the public interest.
We are currently fighting an enemy who wants to kill us.
They don't approach this goal with the same style of warfare that was used in World War II and most of the other wars which preceded this one. Instead of relying on airplanes, tanks, and infantry brigades, they hide among the civilian population, using the same women and children who they intend to murder as a shield and as camouflage. Their goal is that we never recognize who they are or what their intentions are until they hijack an airliner, bomb a building, or use some other method to murder hundreds of innocent civilians. Our military might is nearly useless against this kind of threat. There is no advancing column of troops to attack, and our high-tech Air Force is useless against an enemy that we can't find.
To fight this enemy, we first need to identify and locate them.
Thus, intelligence is the most critical element in the War on Terror. And there are only a few ways to obtain that intelligence. When we capture a terrorist, we can squeeze him for information which will be useful in thwarting the plans of his companions. We can trace and intercept terrorist communications. Or we can track the flow of their money, a necessary ingredient to turn their murderous intentions into action.
Intelligence -- finding out where the enemy is and what they plan to do -- is a necessary part of any war. George Washington said that the “necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged…. upon Secrecy, Success depends in Most Enterprises ... and for want of it, they are generally defeated.” Conventional wars often turned on an intelligence breakthrough rather than a military victory. In World War II, we broke the Japanese code and used the resulting information to give us the edge in ending the war. Today, intelligence is even more important because of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict -- terrorists rely on being undetected because they can not fight a war on a level playing field.
The goal of intelligence in the War on Terror is to give us an advantage by gathering information about our enemy which we can exploit to prevent them from committing their acts of mass murder. This information must be used in such as way that it does not reveal our methods of gathering the information, or alert the enemy to what we know. Without secrecy, intelligence gathering is useless. Just a few weeks ago, an Iraqi informant revealed the location of twenty safe houses used by Zarqawi, the murderous leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. If the identity of the informant had been announced before he could provide this crucial information, he would not have lived long enough to help us achieve a major victory in the War on Terror. Once we had the list of safe houses, if we had started randomly raiding them one at a time, we would have alerted Zarqawi that his network of safe houses had been compromised, and he would not have been meeting in one of them on that fine Thursday morning when two F-16s cut his meeting short. Instead, we waited until the right moment to raid all twenty safe houses and take out Zarqawi in one highly coordinated swoop.
The New York Times is highly committed to exposing government activities which it deems to be "in the public interest". Bill Keller, the editor of the Times complains about the lack of checks and balances, but what are the checks and balances on Bill Keller? Why should this one man who is not accountable to the voters be allowed to make decisions which will cost American lives?
If you want to talk about legality and the public interest, someone in the US Government is illegally leaking classified information to the media which is compromising the security of our nation and endangering lives by undermining our ability to collect the intelligence needed to prevent another terror attack. It is in all of our interest to know who it is. The New York Times knows. But they would rather tip off Al Qaeda to the fact that we are tracking their money transfers.
The New York Times is willing to give a tactical advantage to the enemy during wartime because they have unilaterally declared it to be "in the public interest" but they are not about to expose a public official who has violated both the law and his position of responsibility and betrayed his country by leaking classified information to the media for political gain. It seems to me that their commitment to "the public interest" is not as deep as they would like us to believe.