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"We are Covering the War on Terror, It's a Classified War."

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Bank Data Is Sifted by U.S. in Secret to Block Terror.

Secret U.S. Program Tracks Global Bank Transfers.

Since those headlines appeared on June 23rd storm conditions have prevailed over the big castle of press authority. (Picture of the skies on June 28.) These are thoughts I hope you haven't read everywhere else...

*Who elected the press to make decisions about secrets and national security? No one, absolutely no one.

Precisely because no one elected the press it must find other means of securing its legitimacy. These are inevitably political in nature; they involve persuasion and "public opinion" as well as the protections of law. Whether the journalism is handcrafted and opinionated, or mass-produced and just-the-facts, the press isn't trustable unless it is independent of the people in charge, and stands apart from interest groups competing for power.

So independence is one means of securing legitimacy. Verification before publication is another. Transparency is a third. (Bill Keller in speeches: "As your math teacher might have said, we show our work.") Truthtelling that holds up over time secures legitimacy too.

*William Safire was, I think, wrong when he asked himself on Meet the Press "who elected the media to determine what should be secret and what should not?" and answered with: "the founding fathers did."

The institutional press, its fourth estate identity, and what Ben Bradlee recently called "a holy profession" (because "the pursuit of truth is a holy pursuit...")-- these are all modern inventions. Their legitimacy derives not from the founding fathers but from the opinion of living Americans that an independent and truthtelling press is vital to have as a check on government power, that its loss would be dangerous to their well being, and that professional journalists are doing the job well enough now to be that vital check.

When there are people in politics who wish to change that opinion into... An independent and truthtelling press is vital but the press we have is not independent, it's aligned with a liberal elite, and has become a threat to national security... they cannot be defeated by invoking the founders or reciting the Constitution. There have to be other ways of arguing the case and fighting back.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post had a good starting point: "We are covering the war on terror, it's a classified war." Right. So what does the press do?

* If you don't trust for a moment the judgment or solemn word of the Bush Administration, then you'll view the Times decision to print the SWIFT story one way.

For example as Glenn Greenwald does: "Americans have abandoned this administration due to a long list of intense grievances with the President, and relentless, hysterical attacks on newspapers are highly unlikely to make them forget about those grievances... Ultimately, any institution or group which commits the Greatest Sin of opposing the President and imposing any limits on his powers will be subjected to this same treatment."

* If you don't trust for a moment the judgment or solemn word of the New York Times and its editors, then you'll view the decision in a totally different way.

Hugh Hewitt at the new boombox version of Townhall.com: "The picture that has emerged after a week is of two for-profit newspapers, eager for Pulitizers and aware of the other's hunt for a headline, disregarding the urgent arguments of senior government officials and running a story on a program only dimly if at all understood by some (and by no stretch of the imagination all) terrorists, the result of which is to alert the world and even the below-average-intelligence killer of one key way the United States tracks them."

Let's not pretend there can be any "debate" between those views. Storm conditions, yes. Discourse, no. (See Jack Shafer's Bush or Keller?) Where I could see a useful debate emerging is over Priest's observation: how should an independent press cover a classified war, or should it even try? Some, no doubt, think the press has no business digging into the government's secret fight against terrorism. For them, what Dana Priest and others do is deeply illegitimate at the start. This is different than criticizing bad journalism or poor judgment.

* David Ignatius ran to daylight when he asked in a column for the Post, not who should be trusted with secrets, but what have the parties involved--the Bush White House, the American press--actually done to build public confidence in their judgment as they handle secrets in a classified war?

"'Trust us' is not a winning argument in America -- either with newspaper editors or the public at large," he writes. But that is what the "holy profession" says, especially when it relies on confidential sources. (And "we show our work" is vacated.) It's also the argument of the Administration. Trust us; we know things you don't. No, we can't show our work. But you understand why. It's the nature of the war we're in.

David Ignatius sees the cracks: "We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm. The problem is that we aren't fully qualified to make those judgments. We make the best decisions we can, but they are based on limited knowledge."

That's part of the problem. Hosting Meet the Press July 2, Andrea Mitchell turned to Bill Safire. A lot of people think the Times is "motivated by an anti-Bush animus," she said. "Is The New York Times making a decision that is political rather than editorial?" What escapes her imagination is an editorial call that requires political judgment too. The decision to publish secrets is like that. It eludes the categories in current press think, which pretends that journalistic decisions all fall into one bin, and "political" judgments another.

My views: I find the decision to publish the SWIFT story defensible, but more arguable than the earlier Times story on the National Security Agency. (That's where Nick Kristof is on it.) I don't understand why the information in this post from CounterTerrorism Blog didn't make it into the newspaper reporting. (Neither does CJR Daily.) Whether damage was done in the fight against terrorism I cannot say; that evidence is shrouded in darkness. (Read Dan Froomkin on how little has come to light.) Look, it's a classified war. The grounds for judgment are often missing, not only for journalists but for the Republican chairmen of key Congressional committees.

* Are there any limits at all on the lengths to which the New York Times will go to "get" George W. Bush? Yes, there sure are.

We know this because the Times does not print everything it knows about what the government is doing. Nor do the other national dailies. "The fact is, journalists regularly hold back information for national security reasons," writes Kristof, "I recently withheld information at the request of the intelligence community about secret terrorist communications." I believe that. But there's no need to trust my opinion or Kristof's account. People in government know it happens all the time.

But under storm conditions Heather MacDonald, writing in the Weekly Standard, can just say no. The Times, she says, is "so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives." (My italics.)

If the Times decides not to publish, MacDonald would normally never know about it. In fact she has no idea which classified antiterror programs the Times found out about but did not reveal, and yet she went with her categorical statement ("by now it's undeniable") because it expressed the rage better. The rage may be real, her certainty about what the Times will do is faked. Her article is demagoguery.

At his blog, The Horse's Mouth, Greg Sargent explained the reactions since June 23 as a "diversionary tactic." It's "really all about reuniting a Republican base that's cracking under multiple strains," he said. It's true that the New York Times makes for outstanding culture war theatre, but I think election-year tactics, which are certainly involved, do not explain the severity of the storm.

Let's dig a little deeper. There was one sentence that struck me as mighty revealing (for what it did not say) in the joint op-ed by Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times. They wrote that the government's "passion for secrecy" and the press's drive to reveal secrets are not recent developments, which is true.

* "This did not begin with the Bush administration," said the editors in New York and Los Angeles, "although the polarization of the electorate and the daunting challenge of terrorism have made the tension between press and government as clamorous as at any time since Justice Black wrote." No, sorry, that won't do.

What has made the tension between press and government especially "clamorous" is that people in charge of the Bush White House decided on a strategy for rolling back the national press. It's one part of their reclamation and expansion of executive branch power. The aim is more freedom of action for the President and his powerful VP in going after the terror networks and avoiding all oversight. As I have argued before at Huffington Post, the Bush team changed the game on Washington journalists; and they knew they could get away with it.

For some reason Keller and Baquet decided not to mention any of that. Maybe they agree with Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post (June 11): "What isn't new here seems more significant than what is." Hmmm. I know that at Yearly Kos in Las Vegas, Matt Bai, who covers politics for the New York Times Magazine, said he agreed with me that the game had been changed, and the press had not responded well to that.

I thought David Remnick summed things up pretty well in the July 10th New Yorker: "More than any other White House in history, Bush's has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press, using tactics far more toxic than any prose devised in the name of Spiro Agnew." That's changing the game.

And since June 23 the base has responded with ugly escalations of its own. If those are the tactics what is the strategy? I think it begins with Dick Cheney's conviction that executive power was eroded after Vietnam and Watergate, and ought to be taken back from the institutions that had grabbed too much for themselves-- especially the oversight troops in Congress and the "gotcha" press.

Another part of the puzzle was brought to my attention in 2004 by journalist Ron Suskind when he wrote of the "retreat from empiricism" in the governing style of George W. Bush. Attacks on the press are part of that. So is the systematic distortion of intelligence. Also involved is a tendency noticed by Paul Krugman, who said this in a 2004 interview with Buzzflash:

For four years now, some of us have been saying, whether or not you think they're bad guys, they're certainly radical. They don't play by the rules. You can't take anything that you've regarded as normal from previous U.S. political experience as applying to Bush and the people around him. They will say things and do things that would not previously have made any sense -- you know, would have been previously considered out of bounds.

Now if you actually tried to render this situation in news coverage, the journalism you'd end up doing would also be considered out of bounds, not by Bush supporters but by journalists themselves. New rules would have to be devised for covering radicals in the White House who are trying to roll back the press, vastly expand executive power, evade normal oversight. The adjective "conservative" would become inaccurate for describing Bush and his team, and its routine use would have to be discouraged.

There would be no way to describe the resulting changes in practice--from the old system used in covering Bush the elder and Clinton to the new rules necessary for Bush the younger--as merely "editorial" rather than "political." And no matter what they tell you, fear of looking "too political" is a constant for denizens of the newsroom, an internalized warning system that's second nature to most. It's not Hugh Hewitt's voice they hear, but their own.

* In a word, it would take balls too big for the press to react in proportion to what Bush and company are actually doing. Mainstream political journalism is a system that falls apart when deviant or radical behavior overtakes centers of power. It isn't capable of throwing out the playbook when confronted with a new threat, because it doesn't have any other playbook and it can't stop the presses long enough to work one out.

Once this pattern sets in, denial comes with it. That's how you get "What isn't new here seems more significant than what is." That's why we have an op-ed from Keller and Baquet that talks about "tension" between government and press but mysteriously fails to mention the Bush strategy of de-certifying, attacking and polluting the press with misinformation. And that was supposed to be their effort to fight back!

Journalists are very alarmed by the current campaign against the Times, and for good reason. But even deeper than their sense of alarm is the desire to believe that an old operating system, based on what they have "regarded as normal from previous U.S. political experience," can handle the new data. The countervailing thought--that it can't--just fries their circuits. This solution doesn't work, but it would be too expensive, too messy, and above all "too poltiical" to come up with a better one. So political journalists stick with what they know, and look with awe at the fury directed against them.

I just finished reading George Packer's fine book, The Assassin's Gate. Chapter to chapter, it follows the "retreat from empiricism" in the build-up to the Iraq war. There's nothing in the press playbook about covering a radical development like that. The way that war came to us required victory over the facts on the ground, and over people in the government who knew those facts or had knowledge of what was likely to happen. The Bush forces "won" that victory. Executive privilege got exerted on the terrain of fact itself. That's at stake too in the current storming of the press castle.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of the blog PressThink, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.