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On June 23rd the New York Times, quickly followed by the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, disclosed that the Bush Administration has been secretly monitoring international banking transactions in the effort to track to terrorists. None of these papers released sensitive details of the program, and Bush himself has openly discussed his plans to track terrorist finances. But you would never know this, given the professed shock and outrage of the Administration and Congressional Republicans. Rep. Peter King said, "The New York Times is putting its own arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda before the interests of the American people." And Rep. Pat Roberts of Kansas accused the Times of treason.
More reasonable conservatives, like the Manhattan Institutes' Heather MacDonald, have criticized the Times for disclosing the program when no clear laws were violated. You can read her article in the Weekly Standard here.
I can find four good reasons for publishing the story. First is the Administration's history of stretching legal limits and expanding executive power. If this latest program is not technically illegal, it is at least another example of President Bush's overreach.
Second is precarious legal basis for the program. The President's authority to oversee bank records is granted through the Emergency Economic Powers Act, which, as the name suggests, is meant to be used only in times of Emergency. This tracking program was created right after September 11th, but it has established itself as a permanent program. Public scrutiny will almost certainly force a review of the program's legality
The third reason for disclosure is that Congress was never fully briefed. Now that Congress is informed the entire Intelligence Committee can review the program, not just those the Administration hand picked to know about it.
Finally, I believe the public has an intrinsic right to know the operations of its government. 35 years ago this month the Times received similar heat for publishing the Pentagon Papers, those documents that showed how the government got into the Vietnam War. With the hindsight of history we now know that the Times' decision to publish classified information helped end an unjust war. It is unclear whether Bush's program is unjust or illegal. But the only way to find out is by making the facts public.