Whether The New York Times damaged national security by disclosing a highly classified intelligence program monitoring terrorist financing is, of course, the overriding question in the debate over that newspaper’s controversial revelation. But, inevitably, the issue raises another question that so far has gone largely unexamined: Who is winning the resulting political battle over the press and national security?
If it’s President Bush, the administration and Republicans are being handed a potentially potent wedge issue. That could strengthen Bush’s hand, not only in domestic political terms but in the far more important global struggle against a lethal terrorist enemy.
If, conversely, most Americans are siding with The New York Times, the anti-Bush press will be emboldened and an already beleaguered president further weakened.
This is more than merely a question of partisan political advantage. With the United States at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and fighting a ruthless terrorist foe around the world, the political strength and standing of an American president and his administration are urgent matters. Strong leadership wins wars. Weakness at the top invites defeat.
So, what’s the political score to date in what might be called the Bush vs. New York Times aftermath?
So far, Bush is winning, handily.
An Opinion Dynamics Corp. poll conducted for FOX News after the Times revealed the administration’s secret tracking of terrorist financing resoundingly affirmed the Bush position.
First, 70 percent of those polled in this nationwide survey conducted over two days at the end of June supported tracking terrorist financing. That 70 percent included 83 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents and 58 percent of Democrats.
Not much room there for doubting that the public endorses Bush’s follow-the-money strategy. The until-now secret operation that tracks terrorist financing is a joint operation by the Treasury Department and the Central Intelligence Agency that began soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The same polling found that 60 percent of Americans believe that the Times’ decision to reveal this secret intelligence program "did more to help terrorist groups like al-Qaeda" than to "help the American public." This damning, for The New York Times, conclusion was held by 84 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of independents and 42 percent of Democrats.
For the Times and its editors, the most stinging poll result of all was what respondents thought should be done about media organizations that "report and publish information about national security secrets that may make it easier for terrorists to operate." Two of every three respondents – 84 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of independents and 55 percent of Democrats – believe that those news organizations should "face criminal charges."
Bush and the administration won’t go that far, obviously. But the poll results on this question stand as a stunning rebuke to a smug media elite that self-righteously cloaks itself in the First Amendment and, many believe, disdains its civic responsibility in time of war.
Bush also won a political endorsement from the House of Representatives, which voted 227 to 183 for a resolution condemning disclosure of the terrorist financing surveillance. While this was a largely party-line vote, Democrats offered an alternative that backed monitoring terrorist financing and expressed concern about the leaking of classified information.
No comfort there either for The New York Times.
Now step back from the immediate firestorm over revelation of the administration’s surveillance of international terrorist financing.
Is Bush holding his own or better in the parallel controversy over The New York Times’ disclosure last December of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance of communications between overseas terrorists and their contacts inside the United States? The NSA’s practice of instantly tracking these foreign-source communications without waiting for court-ordered warrants, or obtaining them retroactively, made the program hotly controversial.
No one defended the legality or necessity of the NSA’s surveillance more ardently than Gen. Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who conducted the program and later became a principal intelligence adviser to Bush.
When Bush subsequently nominated Hayden to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Times, citing Hayden’s role in the NSA surveillance, vigorously opposed his nomination on its editorial page. Thus, the Senate’s confirmation vote on Hayden’s nomination became yet another political test of strength between Bush and his media critics.
Bush won, easily. The Senate voted 78-15 to confirm Hayden as CIA director.
Meanwhile, senators of both political parties are exploring ways to modernize the warrant process and affirm the legality of the NSA’s foreign/domestic surveillance of terrorist communications.
What does the public think? Poll results vary but a Washington Post/ABC News poll last May found 63 percent favoring the NSA surveillance operation. Congressional critics have fallen silent and Hayden has long since moved into his CIA office. The NSA surveillance program continues and almost no one is calling for it to be stopped.
The Bush administration isn’t having much luck in persuading the Times and other press critics not to publish highly classified information central to preventing future terrorist attacks. But Bush is clearly winning the political debates that then ensue, and for good reason. Most Americans recognize that stopping the next 9/11 before it happens requires aggressive intelligence gathering, and keeping those operations secret.
Bush is making that case persuasively to the public even if some in the press imagine that they know better.