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Published: Tuesday, 7/4/2006

Media story hardly treason

THE war on terror is being fought to preserve our freedoms, or so the American people are told. But freedom is not just a feel-good expression - it has real meaning. In the paranoid post-9/11 era, that truth seems to have been forgotten.

Last week, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal had a story the Bush Administration did not want published, although it is the New York Times that is taking most of the heat.

Based on information from nearly 20 anonymous current and former government officials and industry executives, the Times' story described a secret government anti-terrorist effort - put in place weeks after 9/11 - to tap "financial records from a vast international database."

The banking transactions of thousands of Americans have been examined, according to the report, although government officials insist that only those of people suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda were looked at. The program is run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department.

None of this is particularly surprising - it would be more surprising if the government did not follow the money trail to catch terrorists.

Clearly, however, this program is occurring in a questionable area of legal and privacy concerns and these are magnified because the program's scope is huge.

Given that the Bush Administration has shown scant respect for the law, both in domestic surveillance and in confining terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, this is an important news story that should be of interest to every American who cares about how the government behaves.

Yet because it revealed classified information, the administration and its supporters see this story as something akin to treason. This is consistent with their view that the war on terror should pre-empt all debate and the messenger must always be blamed when the American people are told about dubious policies.

President Bush called the paper's disclosure of the program "disgraceful," adding that their action "makes it harder to win this war on terror."

That offends common sense. In this case, it wasn't a battle plan or details of an invasion revealed but a policy that any terrorist is likely to have assumed was going on anyway.

The American people must know the nature of government policies if they are to carry on an informed debate. Mr. Bush and his supporters, for all their talk of freedom, have forgotten the duty of a free press as one of the great facilitators of American democracy.

The New York Times and the other papers did not break this story rashly, and we think what they revealed is of more use to thoughtful Americans than to their enemies.

If the government is going to get a free pass on its policies because "we are at war," then the terrorists have scored a victory. Some secrets must be kept, but this was not one of them.


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