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Disputations: National Security Versus Public Interest

'The New York Times' irresponsibly revealed government secrets.

Eric Lichtblau is right that I agree with him on some matters related to the Bush presidency. But on the crucial question raised by his book--whether the press can be trusted to monitor secret government activity wisely--we do not agree.

In defending his paper’s--and his own--record, Lichtblau talks only about the Times' original December 2005 story on the Terrorist Surveillance Program. But as I noted in my review, concerns about the Times' ability to balance national security against the public's right to know “are borne out less by the original Terrorist Surveillance Program story than by the flood of Lichtblau-Risen stories that followed.” These stories, unlike the original one, disclosed many technical details about how the government surveils our enemies, and in that respect was a boon to them. The easiest one to talk about publicly is the story about the SWIFT international banking transfers. As I pointed out in the review, this program broke no laws, and its revelation had a devastating effect on our ability to track terrorists. Even the Times' public editor thought the story should not have been published. Lichtblau revealingly says nothing in defense of the SWIFT story or the other ones the Times published in 2006. Nor does he provide any reason why the Times--inexpert in national security, motivated by fame and profit, and lacking political accountability or external checks--should be trusted to strike the right balance between security and disclosure. Sometimes it makes the right call, but often it does not.

Lichtblau says that my criticisms of the Times constitute a fickle tack “back to the right” after what he apparently thinks were my left-ish steps in government to try to fix the legal basis for the Terrorist Surveillance Program. I do not think about my actions in these terms (but it is interesting that he does). And in any event, I haven’t tacked anywhere. I criticized the Times' publication of its surveillance stories in The Terror Presidency. More importantly, there is no tension whatsoever in worrying about both inappropriate secret government activity and the inappropriate revelation of classified national security secrets by the press. We've focused a lot on the dangers of government secrecy in the last seven years, and too little on the dangers of an unchecked and sometimes irresponsible press. Lichtblau’s book has done the country a service by laying these latter dangers bare.

Jack Goldsmith is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Terror Presidency (Norton). He worked in the Bush administration from 2002 to 2004.

By Jack Goldsmith