CHICAGO -- When The New York Times published a story about a secret government program to find terrorists by monitoring financial transactions, conservatives responded as if the paper had given Osama bin Laden the keys to a missile silo.
The story, asserted President Bush, "does great harm to the United States of America." Vice President Dick Cheney said the Times and other newspapers "have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult." Republican Rep. Peter T. King of New York said the Times' decision was "treasonous."
This is not the first case of the news media supposedly sabotaging the war on terrorism. That charge was heard after The Washington Post uncovered the CIA's detention of purported al-Qaida operatives in secret prisons in Europe. When the Times revealed the National Security Agency's effort to track phone calls between Americans and people overseas suspected of terrorist ties, critics urged its prosecution under the Espionage Act.
The administration thinks it's an outrage that newspapers made these disclosures. So why didn't someone stop them? The government had plenty of advance notice the leaks were coming. Editors at the Times and the Post both conferred with officials who tried to dissuade them, and the Times held off publishing the NSA story for a year.
What could the government have done?
Simple: It could have gone to court and asked a federal judge to forbid the newspapers to publish. It could have done so without making public what the stories were about. Instead, it protested ineffectually - and then allowed something it says weakened our defenses.
The assumption is that the administration had no choice. The last time the government tried to stop the publication of secret information was in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case. After the Times and the Post published articles about a classified report on U.S. policy in the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration requested a court injunction to block any additional stories - and got it. But the Supreme Court shortly ruled otherwise, permitting the stories to run.
That decision is often taken to mean the government may never impose "prior restraint" - barring press organs from publishing (rather than, say, punishing them after they've done it). In fact, the real basis for the decision was that the Pentagon Papers didn't reveal any critical secrets.
Under some conditions, the court said, it would permit advance censorship. If national security truly had hung in the balance, the Nixon administration almost certainly would have won the case.
Justices Potter Stewart and Byron R. White, authors of the crucial opinion, indicated they would be ready to prevent the disclosure of national security information that "will surely result in direct, immediate and irreparable damage to our nation or its people." Conservatives on the court were even more open to suppressing military secrets.
According to the news media's critics, these stories are just that bad. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which discussed events that were years old by the time of publication, the revelations dealt with current intelligence-gathering methods during wartime. Plenty of people insist they jeopardize American lives by giving terrorists vital tips on how to evade detection.
But were the stories really damaging? It's no secret to terrorists that the U.S. government tries to keep tabs on their telephone calls and bank transactions.
Does the administration believe its own accusations? If it saw a grave danger in letting this information out, it could have acted pre-emptively to keep it from ever seeing print. Though there was no guarantee of success, it had nothing to lose by trying.
True, that would have sparked a flurry of outrage. But since when is Mr. Bush scared of being criticized by the press or civil libertarians?
The president has a solemn duty to protect the nation from attack. His decision not to ask a court to block these disclosures suggests one of two things. The first is that he knowingly exposed Americans to a danger he might have averted. The second - and more likely - is that he knew the revelations wouldn't compromise our security.
It's one thing for Mr. Bush to claim the stories did great harm. It's another for the administration to do what a court would have required: Prove it.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.