Eric Lichtblau-NY TIMES: "We're Actually In The Middle Of An Historic Clash Between The Administration On The One Hand And The Press On The Other."

See anything unusal about this panel? KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about all this, Eric Lichtblau, Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the &quo

Reliable-SOurces-panel.jpg See anything unusal about this panel?

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about all this, Eric Lichtblau, Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the "New York Times" story that has sparked this uproar; Gene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for the "Washington Post"; Geneva Overholser, the "Post's" former ombudsman and former editor of "The Des Moines Register", now directs the University of Missouri journalism school's Washington program. And in Irvine, California, radio talk show host and blogger, author, Hugh Hewitt, author of the new book, "Painting the Map Red: The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority"

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The Cowardly Lion seemed a little outmatched here. Eric didn't feel the need to engage in his shenanigans.

ERIC LICHTBLAU, CO-AUTHOR, "NEW YORK TIMES" STORY: Well, I think we're actually in the middle of an historic clash between the administration on the one hand and the press on the other. There's a balance between national security and the public's right to know. And unfortunately, we're in the middle of it at the moment.

KURTZ: But when arguing against publishing the story is that, by your own account in the "Times", there is nothing illegal about this financial surveillance program. Is that right?

transcript probvided by CNN's Reliable Sources:

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on an extraordinary political attack on "The New York Times". I'm Howard Kurtz.

The story was instantly controversial, exposing a secret administration program to track the banking records of terror suspects.

"The New York Times" reported the news late last week, quickly followed by the "Los Angeles Times" and "Wall Street Journal".

Treasury Secretary John Snow had asked "The New York Times" not to publish the story, but editor Bill Keller made the decision to go ahead, and the White House wasted little time in denouncing the paper for undermining the war on terror.


↓ Story continues below ↓

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What is doubling disturbing for me that not only have they gone forward with these stories, but they've been rewarded for it. For example, in the case of the terrorist surveillance program, by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. I think that's a disgrace.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Congressional Republicans claim the "Times" is wrong, putting together a House resolution condemning the paper. Senate intelligence chairman Pat Roberts asked the administration for an official damage assessment, and Congressman Peter King called for the newspaper to be prosecuted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: To me, this was a reckless disregard of the security of the United States. And I believe that fits within the espionage act of 1917.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Conservative publications piled on, with the "New York Post" running this accusatory headline. "National Review" urged the White House to yank the "Times'" press credentials and a "Weekly Standard" writer called the newspaper a national security threat that is drunk on its own power.

The debate raged on the airwaves, as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think "The New York Times" hates Bush. I think they probably go out of their way to hurt Bush. I think they would probably even reveal things they shouldn't reveal in order to hurt Bush.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": The "New York Times" may have reached a tipping point. The paper is chock full of far left columnists, and now its news pages could be damaging national security.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we're going to start prosecuting newspapers for revealing government policy, that is at best legally questionable.

If we're willing to trade freedom for temporary security, the old saying goes, in this area -- sorry for the cliche here, but haven't the terrorist won something in this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about all this, Eric Lichtblau, Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the "New York Times" story that has sparked this uproar; Gene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for the "Washington Post"; Geneva Overholser, the "Post's" former ombudsman and former editor of "The Des Moines Register", now directs the University of Missouri journalism school's Washington program. And in Irvine, California, radio talk show host and blogger, author, Hugh Hewitt, author of the new book, "Painting the Map Red: The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority". Welcome.

Eric Lichtblau, what do you make of this amazing deluge: Bush, Cheney, congressional Republicans, "National Review", "Weekly Standard", saying that your story damaged national security and undermined a program that is aimed at catching terrorists?

ERIC LICHTBLAU, CO-AUTHOR, "NEW YORK TIMES" STORY: Well, I think we're actually in the middle of an historic clash between the administration on the one hand and the press on the other. There's a balance between national security and the public's right to know. And unfortunately, we're in the middle of it at the moment.

KURTZ: But when arguing against publishing the story is that, by your own account in the "Times", there is nothing illegal about this financial surveillance program. Is that right?

LICHTBLAU: Yes, I mean, I don't think that illegality should be the standard to decide whether to publish a program like this. Certainly, this was a legal gray area, as we said in the story. I think by even the administration's own acknowledgment. This is an aggressive reading of presidential power and, in the view of the paper, fit into a pattern of aggressive antiterrorism strategies and raised questions about checks and balances, whether or not Congress had been properly briefed on the program and a whole host of other questions.

KURTZ: Gene Robinson, do you see, especially in recent days, a coordinated Republican attack against the "Times"?

GENE ROBINSON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR/COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": It certainly looks coordinated, and the "New York Times" is a big, juicy target. And -- well, because it's -- you know, it has this cache of elitism, or at least is painted that way.

And the "Times" is a great newspaper, like the "Washington Post", like the "Wall Street Journal", like the "Los Angeles Times". All those papers have, you know, done what newspapers should do, which is dig and try to find out what's happening. And that's inconvenient for an administration that believes in vastly expanded presidential powers and in doing all this in secrecy.

KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, you've been enormously critical of the "Times" decision to publish this story. Do you believe that its editors and reporters should be prosecuted?

HUGH HEWITT, AUTHOR, "PAINTING THE MAP RED": I don't know enough to answer that question, because 18 USC 798 has a lot of elements to it, Howard. But I know this. Eric's story helped terrorists elude capture. That's what the outrage is about. That's the widely shared opinion among people with intelligence background. It's widely shared by soldiers in the field, as made evident on their blogs.

KURTZ: How can you be so sure of that, since it was just published last week?

HEWITT: Well, A, it's very easy to deduce that unless every single terrorist in the world, the tens of thousands of them, knew about a program that the CIA didn't even know about when 9/11 occurred. But they learned a great deal.

And B, in the story itself it talks about how Hambala, the most important terrorist in Southeast Asia, was apprehended because of this program. As we speak, I'm sure his associates are reverse engineering everything they previous thought they knew and figuring out how it was the transactions that helped finance him led to him. And they won't do it again. It's not rocket science, Howard. This helped terrorists elude capture.

KURTZ: Geneva Overholser, you run a newspaper. It is awfully hard for an editor, is it not, to say no when a top official, in this case Treasury Secretary John Snow, says -- looks you in the eye and says, "That story, if you run it, will damage national security."

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI JOURNALISM

PROGRAM: It's terribly difficult. And editors struggle mightily with these issues and often decide not to run the information.

In my experience, part of what pushes many editors over is that what they hear from the people inside the government, those who are leaking, if you will, expresses concern on their part about what's happening.

And in a war like this is, without limits, without boundaries, if the press isn't bringing this kind of information before people, before Congress, before the courts, then I think we all need to worry about who will.

KURTZ: Eric Lichtblau, what's your reaction to Vice President Cheney saying he's offended that you won a Pulitzer Prize and shared a Pulitzer Prize for the story last December that disclosed the domestic eavesdropping program of the Bush administration?

LICHTBLAU: Well, I'll leave that judgment to other people. The point that Hugh made, as far as the damage to national security, you know, I have to take issue with -- with the assessment of what he's saying is a widely shared belief, that this has in some way alerted the terrorists to something they didn't know.

It has been common knowledge from 9/11, from President Bush on down, that they're using every means available to trace financial transactions of terrorists. President Bush has talked about shutting down the money pipeline, finding the money, seizing the money. His aides have made that message over and over and over again.

It's so commonly known, in fact, that there have been numerous stories by myself and other reporters in the last four and a half years about how the -- how the terrorists are aware that their money is being traced and are moving it out of financial institutions.

So the harm to me is -- is an abstract one, at best.

KURTZ: There is also a web site by this organization, which is called SWIFT. So that it was not a complete secret.

But Hugh Hewitt, I have a funny feeling you'd like to respond to that.

HEWITT: I do, and there are two responses. One is the difference between knowing that people are out to catch speeders and even knowing where the speed traps and the radar and the cameras are.

And No. 2, in the story itself, in Eric's own story, it talks about how this program has operated and that no one knew about it. The CIA didn't know about it.

And as a result -- and by the way, don't believe me. Believe Doyle McManus, the Washington bureau chief of the "Los Angeles Times", who admitted on my program that it was conceivable that this program helped terrorists elude capture. Once you've got that admission, it is impossible for the "New York Times" or "Los Angeles Times" to balance the harm it did.

And unless Eric wants to tell us that he knows the mind of every single terrorist in the world, what they know and what they don't know, how they operate, how they train, how they go about killing people, he's making an absurd statement that I think convicts him as not knowing much about intelligence; perhaps a lot about journalism but almost nothing about how intelligence in law enforcement works.

KURTZ: I need to give you a chance to respond.

LICHTBLAU: I'm not going to know the mind of every terrorist, but I am claiming to know exactly what President Bush and his senior aides have said. And when you have senior Treasury Department officials going before Congress, publicly talking about how they are tracing and cutting off money to terrorists, weeks and weeks before our story ran.

"USA Today", the biggest circulation in the country, the lead story on their front page four days before our story ran was the terrorists know their money is being traced, and they are moving it into -- outside of the banking system into unconventional means. It is by no means a secret.

KURTZ: Geneva.

OVERHOLSER: I just wanted to make one quick point in response to Hugh's point about Doyle McManus saying it could conceivably help the terrorists. That's a pretty frightening concept, because again, we're in this war, open war. So many things could conceivably help the terrorists. And I think none of us wants to -- to say, well, we can't worry about that, because we must worry about it all the time.

But if the standard is any kind of information that could conceivably help the terrorists cannot be published, we're in trouble.

KURTZ: Gene Robinson, the "Washington Post" also ran the story, playing catch up after the "Times" had published its story online.

Let's take this out of the realm of pundits and politicians, you know, all of them -- sometimes, I should say, play partisan games and ideological games.

Aren't there an awful lot of average Americans out there who are upset with the "New York Times", in particular, with the press in general, for what they see as exposing a successful anti-terror program?

ROBINSON: There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides of this issue, judging by the -- the e-mails that I get and people I talk to.

There are people who -- who are upset with the press. And who -- you know, I get communication from people saying, "Why are you people doing this? Why are you telling the truth (ph)?" I happen to believe that story and other revelations haven't really told the dangerous terrorists things that they didn't already know or suspect.

And I also believe...

KURTZ: But would you acknowledge that it's a close call on this particular case?

ROBINSON: Yes, absolutely, it's a close call. And as Geneva said, newspapers often decide not to publish information because it seems to fall the other way. It seems -- it seems that it could damage security or get someone killed or create risk.

But you know, an open society does entail a certain amount of risk. And -- and to say that anything you could ever publish that might conceivably help a terrorist can therefore not be published is -- is not-- is not a coherent way to -- for a free society to think of the press.

KURTZ: In your mind, Eric Lichtblau, I realize you don't make the final decision. Your editor, Bill Keller does. Was this -- was this a more difficult decision, closer call than your earlier story on the domestic surveillance program, which many, even Republicans say, you know, was of questionable legality and which millions of Americans were concerned about for privacy reasons? Was this a closer call?

LICHTBLAU: I think in some ways it was a closer call. It was a difficult decision. Anytime we're talking about, you know, revealing sensitive information, that is not something any paper does lightly, be it the "New York Times", the "L.A. Times" or the "Wall Street Journal".

You know, the paper listened long and hard over a period of months to the administration, the arguments they made, the arguments before making the decision they did.

And you know, we listened to people who the administration sent to talk to us about the program. And you know, it was not an easy decision. And outside the context of the NSA program and the debate going on over presidential powers, it probably would have been even a more difficult decision.

KURTZ: Hugh Hewitt, what do you make of that? I mean, in other words, I think that someone the right are portraying this as "The New York Times" just sort of recklessly plowing ahead, putting this information in the paper, wanting to damage the Bush administration, when in the case of domestic surveillance, they held the story for a year. In this current case, on the banking program, the story was held for at least several weeks.

So would you not grant, at least, that they wrestled seriously with the implications here?

HEWITT: We'll grant that, Howard, because Bill Keller won't do any interviews with people hostile to his decision. Eric has turned me down repeatedly to come on my program. And when you listen to the MSMers gathered round there in the beltway, they're not dealing with the real issue.

I'm not proposing, no one is proposing what Geneva and Gene suggest that we're talking about. We're talking about a specific story in which, for the first time in American history, following on the December stories, major media has turned down explicit requests from the government not to reveal material illegally leaked to them by, in this instance, 20 people who broke their oaths of office, who ought to be discovered, who ought to be, at least, thrown out of the government and possibly prosecuted. And I hope Eric is in front of a grand jury and asked their names.

It's a specific case. It's not a general shut-down; it's not a repeal of the First Amendment. It's a specific...

KURTZ: Hold on. So you're saying -- you're saying you hope that Eric Lichtblau, who's sitting right here, has to testify in front of a grand jury, and if he won't reveal his sources, then you are perfectly comfortable with a judge sending him off to jail?

HEWITT: I don't know the circumstances of how he would not be answering or who would make him, so I won't answer that. I hope he is called before a grand jury and asked who broke the law, who broke their oath and told him secrets that I believe, as do many other people, including for example, Lieutenant Tom Cotton, Sergeant T.F. Boggs, both of whom have written letters to the "Times" which have gone unanswered...

KURTZ: All right. Here...

HEWITT: ... who they believe are getting killed because of what he did. I think he ought to be asked that question of who did this.

KURTZ: And we will take that up on the other side of this break, but I do need to get a break. And when we come back, we'll talk about the limits of free press in this country. Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Eric Lichtblau, before the break Hugh Hewitt said that he hopes you have to testify before a grand jury. Did you think of that before publishing this story, whether you would face that prospect if there was a leak investigation?

LICHTBLAU: Sure, that's something that in our climate I think every reporter wrestles with. You know, there are various leak investigations going on. I have no idea where any of those are going to go. But you know, I think the use of confidential sources is an important principle for reporters, and if the government starts criminalizing that, which is where we seem to be heading, you might as well declare a moratorium on investigative reporting and end the press's role as a watchdog.

KURTZ: The story says that there were about 20 sources for this report of yours, with your -- with your colleague, James Risen. Why, without obviously getting into any confidential relationships, why would people come forward and talk to you about this sensitive matter?

LICHTBLAU: Well, I think the one point that we made in the story as far as, you know, possibly motivations of sources was that there are a number of people in government in this program and others who believe that the emergency powers that were relied on immediately after 9/11 have now become permanent. This was, by any reading, an expansive view of presidential authority, to gather millions and millions of banking records and then sift through those without specific subpoenas or warrants. A legal gray area, as I said earlier.

I think there are people who believe that what was an understandable emergency response to 9/11, five years after has now become permanent without Congress even knowing about it, for the most part.

KURTZ: Gene Robinson, in every one of these recent cases, "New York Times" on eavesdropping, "Washington Post" on secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and this latest story, the decision seems to be to go ahead and publish. So a lot of people are getting the impression that it's -- we just sort of barrel ahead, regardless of the objections.

ROBINSON: But that's not what happens. Bill Keller has -- the editor of the "Times" has -- you know, has talked about the long process of trying to weigh whether or not to publish, what to publish. For example, the CIA prison story...

KURTZ: President Bush personally asked the newspaper not to publish.

ROBINSON: Right, and the newspaper decided to publish the story. The "Post" was asked not to publish the names of the countries where the prisons were located and in fact, the "Post" did not publish and has not published that information.

So it's not -- you know, it's not utter reckless abandon, as it's painted. It's not that way at all.

OVERHOLSER: ... to Iraq.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

OVERHOLSER: How many scores of reporters and editors knew he was going to Iraq on the most recent visit, and they didn't say anything, because it was...?

KURTZ: Most journalists did not know.

OVERHOLSER: Well, I know, but some did.

KURTZ: Is there -- is there...

OVERHOLSER: And they didn't say anything, those who did know.

KURTZ: Is there a scoop -- you've wrote the news and is there a scoop mentality here that sometimes maybe clouds the judgment about whether to go ahead, no go ahead? You want to get the scoop; you want to win the prize. You want to be the first out with the sensational story.

OVERHOLSER: There's no question that a scoop mentality is one of the most important motivators on the table. And what I think comes up against it is all of these questions about is there a real threat to national security? Is there a real public interest in knowing the information?

But of course, you're right. All of us itch to get the story and to get it out there. And if they didn't, then we wouldn't be obeying the press commitment to tell people what we know.

KURTZ: Hugh, do you worry at all about what the cliche is, a chilling effect on the press? That there are these investigations and prosecutions? Doesn't -- isn't the press, whether you agree in this particular instance or not, a -- exert a certain check on the power of government?

HEWITT: Of course it does. I've been teaching con law for 10 years. I love the First Amendment. I think it's necessary. But I am amazed that your three guests -- none of them even mention the war against the war or Bush hatred and the antipathy that has been manifesting itself by a lot of people, both inside government, especially within mainstream media.

The astonishing thing is the little close circle that is MSM seems to be surprised that the vast majority of Americans are suspicious of their motives and understand them to be political and hard left and engaged in a war against this administration. They're not fooling anyone except themselves.

And I really do hope, Howard, that Eric and Gene will accept my repeated invitations to appear in a fair and a long conversation on the air so that they can defend themselves. The fact that they're hiding tells us a lot.

KURTZ: You can call them up after the show. And I think some members of the MSM, or mainstream media, would disagree with your characterization of Bush hatred, but we're going to have to leave it there.

LICHTBLAU: Yes, I mean, I don't think that illegality should be the standard to decide whether to publish a program like this. Certainly, this was a legal gray area, as we said in the story. I think by even the administration's own acknowledgment. This is an aggressive reading of presidential power and, in the view of the paper, fit into a pattern of aggressive antiterrorism strategies and raised questions about checks and balances, whether or not Congress had been properly briefed on the program and a whole host of other questions.

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