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FROM THIS EPISODE

Off with Their Heads

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Last week, the country's top newspapers, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, disclosed the existence of a secret government program to monitor the financial transactions of suspected terrorists.

The program, set up shortly after the 9/11 attacks, allows U.S. counterterrorism teams to obtain financial information from a huge database run by a company based in Belgium that deals every day with about 11 million financial transactions, worth about $6 trillion, between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions in 200 countries.

But the New York Times's story on Friday said that, as part of the surveillance, officials examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States.

Although the program helped in the capture of the most wanted al Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, it is "a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans' financial records," the Times story said.

"Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions," the story said.

It quoted officials as saying that such access to large amounts of confidential data was "highly unusual, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues."

One former counterterrorism official told the Times that, while tight controls are in place, "the potential for abuse is enormous."

Nevertheless, the revelations have backfired on the media, and enabled President Bush and his supporters to paint the newspapers as interfering with the administration's efforts against terrorism.

Yesterday, Bush said the disclosure of the program was "disgraceful."

"For people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America," Bush said, according to the Associated Press.

"We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America," the President said. "What we were doing was the right thing." In a note on the New York Times Web site on Sunday, Executive Editor Bill Keller said that, prior to publication, he had been puzzled by the government's argument that the secret program would be ineffective if it became known, on the grounds that international bankers would be unwilling to cooperate.

Keller pointed out that the banks were under subpoena to provide the information, and that "policing the byways of international terror seems to have pretty strong support everywhere."

The Times, Keller said, spent weeks discussing with Bush administration officials whether to publish the report. The administration, he said, argued "in a halfhearted way" that disclosure of the program "would lead terrorists to change tactics."

And yet the Treasury Department has long trumpeted the fact that it tracks international financing of terror.

Dean Baquet, editor of the L.A. Times, said in an A.P. story that it is the job of newspapers "to publish what we know about the government's role" in the war on terror.

But Vice President Dick Cheney said the program was "absolutely essential" to fighting terrorism, and said he was "offended" by what the newspapers had done.

Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, urged prosecution of the "treasonous" New York Times.

Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, also called for the paper to be prosecuted for treason.

"The New York Times will stop at nothing to propel its liberal agenda," Bozell said. "This most recent story should serve as a warning to Americans that the New York Times just doesn't give a damn about American national security."

In his letter to the Times's readers, editor Keller wrote that America's founders "saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government."

"They rejected the idea," Keller wrote, "that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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