Financial Snooping Stories Put Media in Spotlight

President Bush has sharply criticized the U.S. media for stories revealing his administration's surveillance of global monetary transactions to track suspected terrorists and their financiers. Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times tells Alex Chadwick about his newspaper's decision to publish the information.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. Coming up, we check back with long distance hikers in the Alaskan wilderness where they were followed, stopped, by a wolf. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. First stalking the press for alerting terrorist to a secret program to catch them or so says the Bush administration. In the last day, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the Secretary of the Treasury, John Snow, have all used the term disgraceful in describing reports on Friday about what had been a secret program to monitor International bank transfers that might have involved agents for al-Qaida. Here's the President.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America.

CHADWICK: One of the papers that broke the story is The Los Angeles Times. And one of those who made the decision to run it is the Washington Bureau Chief for the paper, Doyle McManus. He joins us now from Washington.

Doyle, what about the specific charges here? This program was legal the president says, and very helpful to the government.

Mr. DOYLE MCMANUS (Washington Bureau Chief, The Los Angeles Times): Well the problem, Alex, is that the government says the program was legal - is legal, it's still going on. The government says that adequate safeguards are in place to make sure that the program doesn't overstep reasonable bounds. And the government says that there is oversight here.

The problem is that all of those assertions are from the Treasury Department, from the executive branch, and there is no real oversight outside the executive. There's safeguards that they have set up internally, but they haven't been reviewed by anyone outside. They've made an argument that it's a legal problem, but that hasn't been reviewed by anyone outside.

So, in a sense, as was the case with some earlier administration efforts, part of their case comes down to - trust us.

CHADWICK: Writing very critically about this for The Manhattan Institute, the policy analyst Heather Mac Donald notes that Democratic and Republican leaders urge that this story not run. Were you part of such conversations?

Mr. MCMANUS: Ah, no, we weren't and, I'm told - I've read from what the editor of The New York Times has said, that the administration did enlist some Democrats and some Republicans to urge that. But we should note, that since the story ran Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that he doesn't know whether this program is legal, and that he thinks that the administration opt to submit it to some Congressional scrutiny.

CHADWICK: The New York Times is, as you mentioned, has gotten a special attention on this because they also broke the NSA warrantless wiretap program back in December. At least one member of Congress says he wants The New York Times charged with treason for this latest news story.

What about the level of rhetoric here, Doyle?

Mr. MCMANUS: Politicians use rhetoric all the time. It would be a good thing for Congress to get involved in a serious way and to review whether this program is legal, to review whether the safeguards are adequate, to review whether the oversight is adequate.

CHADWICK: But when a government official, who clearly knows more than you do about security programs that are ongoing and presumably knows more than any of us that who don't get classified information about threats to the country, when this official says to you, please don't run this, just how do you make that decision to go ahead and do it?

Mr. MCMANUS: Well, in the first place, we get that kind of request fairly often. I don't want overstate that, it's not every week, but probably several times a year. We certainly have some clear lines where we don't endanger lives, we don't endanger American lives, we don't reveal specific ongoing military operations or intelligence operations. We are balancing the disclosure of the existence of a program, one that could cause difficulties for the government.

We have to balance that potential problem with what we take to be the public interest, the Congress' interest, in overseeing what the executive branch is doing in our name.

CHADWICK: Doyle McManus, Washington Bureau Chief of The Los Angeles Times. Doyle, thank you.

Mr. MCMANUS: Thank you Alex.

(Soundbite of Music)

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY, from NPR News.

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