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NY Times ombudsman now says paper was wrong to report on banking-data surveillance program

Ron Brynaert
Published: Monday October 23, 2006

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In a "mea culpa" appended to the end of his column on Sunday, the ombudsman for the New York Times now says that the paper was wrong to report on the Bush Administration's "once-secret banking-data surveillance program."

In July, Byron Calame, a former deputy managing editor for the Wall Street Journal, defended the newspaper's June 23 article which revealed that "weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States."

But the ombudsman now believes that his reasoning was "flawed."

"Since the job of public editor requires me to probe and question the published work and wisdom of Times journalists, thereís a special responsibility for me to acknowledge my own flawed assessments," Calame wrote on Sunday.

Calame says that his prior defense "was off base," and "[w]hile itís a close call now, as it was then," he doesn't "think the article should have been published."

"I haven't found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws," Calame continues. "Also, there still havenít been any abuses of private data linked to the program, which apparently has continued to function."

In July, Calame had blasted "the skimpy Congressional oversight of the program."

"Secrecy is vital for intelligence and national security programs, but so is oversight by the courts or elected legislators," Calame wrote in July. "The Swift program, however, doesn't seem to have any specific Congressional approval or formal authorization."

But Calame now believes he gave the lack of Congressional oversight "too much weight."

"What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call?" Calume asks. "I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press ó two traits that I warned readers about in my first column."

Some bloggers on the right have blasted Calame's turnaround, and a few are even calling on him to resign.

"Simply put, Byron Calame overlooked (or underweighted) obvious facts, and defended his paper in a knee-jerk fashion, simply because his paper had been viciously attacked by the governmen," blogger Patterico writes.

"A public editor who cannot objectively evaluate his paperís behavior in the face of criticism ó from any source ó should not be the public editor," Patterico continues. "I appreciate Calameís honesty. But he should resign."

Blogger Dan Riehl disagrees with Patterico.

"Why throw out an Editor when you have him on record publicly acknowledging the mistake and that the NY Times doesn't like George Bush?" Riehl notes. "I'd prefer having him right where he is."

Excerpts from Calame's column on Sunday:

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I havenít found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws. Although data-protection authorities in Europe have complained that the formerly secret program violated their rules on privacy, there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken. Data-protection rules are often stricter in Europe than in America, and have been a frequent source of friction.

Also, there still havenít been any abuses of private data linked to the program, which apparently has continued to function. That, plus the legality issue, has left me wondering what harm actually was avoided when The Times and two other newspapers disclosed the program. The lack of appropriate oversight ó to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention ó was a key reason I originally supported publication. I think, however, that I gave it too much weight.

In addition, I became embarrassed by the how-secret-is-it issue, although that isnít a cause of my altered conclusion. My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: the Times article and headline had both emphasized that a "secret" program was being exposed. (If one sentence down in the article had acknowledged that a number of people were probably aware of the program, both the newsroom and I would have been better able to address that wave of criticism.)

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FULL COLUMN BY CALAME CAN BE READ AT THIS LINK