Questions about revelations by the news media, already consumed with fallout from The New York Times' disclosure of secret anti-terrorist techniques, continue to gain traction in a volatile election year in the nation's capital.
USA Today published yesterday a lengthy notice to its readers that was a partial retreat of its startling front-page report of six weeks ago that the government contracted with major telecommunications companies to create a huge database of personal phone records.
Although USA Today affirmed through legislative and industry sources that the phone database exists, the paper's labored clarification yesterday was the latest episode in the conflict between press freedom and the "war on terror." Much more than philosophical, the debate over free press vs. security predates the founding of democracy but has been re-ignited as political fodder and the stuff of late-night TV monologues.
"Nobody ever said that a free press was going to be pretty," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of news media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"The whole system is set up so that if [the press is] doing its job properly, it's going to frequently anger the people" it monitors, Thompson added.
The New York Times, followed closely by other newspapers, disclosed June 23 a secret government program to monitor millions of international financial transactions. The administration responded with an effort to paint the media - and particularly The Times - as impeding the government's efforts to thwart terrorists. President Bush said disclosure of the program was "disgraceful," and some called the paper's actions treasonous.
"Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made it harder to defend America against attack by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs," Vice President Dick Cheney told guests at a Republican fundraiser in Manhattan yesterday.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-led resolution that condemned the media disclosures, and that said it "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" in the war on terrorism. Supporters of the resolution, approved 227-183, noted the disclosures about the banking surveillance and reports last fall - also published by The Times - that the National Security Agency was monitoring telephone calls without court approvals.
Critics of the administration contend that the president's shaky poll numbers, violence in Iraq and the coming congressional elections have led the White House and supporters on Capitol Hill to turn to an issue that might resonate with the public.
"The Bush administration loves to beat on the news media, in an effort to score political points with its base, to deflect attention from the real issues and to intimidate journalists, which it did so effectively after 9/11," said Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. "It's a time-dishonored ploy out of the Nixon administration playbook."
Rieder and others dismissed claims that the revelations about the banking surveillance alerted enemies to terror-fighting techniques, especially because the Treasury Department has long trumpeted that it tracks international financing networks. "Could anyone really think the terrorists are so clueless that they didn't think the U.S. was monitoring money transfers?" Rieder asked.
The banking program, set up shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, allows the U.S. to gather data from a Belgian company that processes about 11 million daily financial transactions among banks, stock exchanges and other institutions in 200 countries. The Times reported that officials examined banking transactions involving thousands of people in the United States.
"It's simple. Loose lips kill American people," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, invoking the "Loose lips sink ships" theme from World War II. "And wayward ink can draw a clear path for the enemy to follow."
New York Rep. Peter T. King, Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said The Times would have blood on its hands if terrorists attacked again.
Attacking the media seems to pay political dividends for the administration, particularly when it invokes such episodes as the CBS News report about Bush's stint in the National Guard that was later discredited and led to the exit of several television executives.
"The Republicans are losing the center in this election year, so they're doing everything they can to pump up their base by demonizing Democrats as cut-and-run softies and the liberal New York Times as unpatriotic," said Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, described the administration's anti-media campaign as a "political strategy to force the press to pull their punches and not be aggressive watchdogs."
Sun reporters Gwyneth Shaw and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.