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For Relaxing Times, Don't Make It The New York Times

Here we go again. Last week, the New York Times revealed the existence of a secret government program in which counterterrorism officials "examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States." And Republican representative Peter King ain't happy about it.

"We're at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous," said King. He said yesterday that he is urging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to "begin an investigation and prosecution of The New York Times - the reporters, the editors and the publisher."

Also yesterday, Times executive editor Bill Keller explained in a letter why the paper ran the story. Keller opened the letter by providing a basic explination about where the paper was coming from: "The question we start with as journalists is not 'why publish?' but 'why would we withhold information of significance?' We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so."

And Keller writes that the Times didn't get one here. After listening "patiently and attentively" to the concerns of Administration officials who wanted the Times not to publish the story, Keller writes that the Times found their central argument – that "international bankers would stop cooperating, would resist, if this program saw the light of day" – "puzzling." The banks have a legal obligation to provide the information thanks to subpoena, he notes – and besides, if "the program is legal, highly effective, and well protected against invasion of privacy, the bankers should have little trouble defending it."

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Keller concludes: "I can appreciate that other conscientious people could have gone through the process I've outlined above and come to a different conclusion. But nobody should think that we made this decision casually, with any animus toward the current Administration, or without fully weighing the issues."

As you may have guessed, conservative bloggers aren't buying Keller's explanation. Michelle Malkin has a roundup here, and memorandum is also doing its thing. There is much too much reaction to the letter to summarize in this space, so I suggest you check out the sources linked above if you're interested in finding out what they're saying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I generally side with the Times on this one, although I do agree with many bloggers that the letter had a whiff of arrogance to it, though that's largely a quibble. In any event, at least one blogger sees a silver lining to this latest Times kafuffle. Writes Dan Kennedy: "More than anything, the mere fact that [Keller] believes journalists must explain themselves to the public shows the how deeply the notion of transparency has taken root."

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