April 23, 2024

Press Freedom

United States

United States June 29, 2006

President George W. Bush
Office of the President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Fax: (202) 456-2461

Mr. President:

I write to protest your Administration’s attack on The New York Times in retaliation for its recent stories exposing your secret programs to monitor Americans’ overseas telephone calls and financial transactions. Both you and Vice President Cheney have called these disclosures “disgraceful” and have said they make it harder to win the war on terror, and Mr. Cheney has singled out The Times “in particular,” even though both The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times also broke the latest round of exposures of the financial surveillance. None of these newspapers need any help from this organization. But we are deeply concerned that other editors, who have less prestige, less influence, and less supportive and well-financed publishers, may feel the chilling influence of your words and hesitate to publish controversial stories for fear of being called unpatriotic. This would be a serious blow to press freedom and to the long-range good of the country.

Your Administration and your allies in Congress have defended both secret programs as completely legal and effective in producing leads against terrorists, and have suggested that their disclosure would be damaging to the fight against terrorism. Yet it is by no means an open-and-shut case that they are grounded in law, and there is reason to believe that the telephone surveillance directly violates FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that was passed by Congress in response to earlier violations of Americans’ Constitutional rights. It is also not clear that the Administration was complying with its legal obligation to keep Congress informed of its acts. By several uncontradicted press reports, it was only after The Times began inquiring about the banking surveillance operation that some key members of Congress were briefed on it.

As to the damage these disclosures may have done, it is hard to believe that the terrorists did not suspect that their activities were being monitored — especially since you and other top officials have repeatedly warned that you are doing so, and specifically that you are tracking their financial transactions. But there is no record that the disclosures have caused any damage at all. It was only this past Tuesday, weeks after the first disclosure and several days after the second, that Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked for a formal assessment of any such damage by the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte. As a technical point, it has also been reported that the banking surveillance program was first disclosed four years ago, in a United Nations report that specifically mentioned the Belgian-based banking consortium known as Swift that provided the data. If terrorists have not already resorted to the underground network, hawala, for their transactions, it is probably because hawala could not handle their traffic and they had no alternative to the conventional system.

Mr. President, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has acknowledged that publishing these disclosures was “a hard call.” There is indeed a tradition of withholding news that would be damaging to our country’s military efforts. But this mandate must be weighed against the damage to our free society and its institutions that can be done by secret, unfettered spying on our citizens. There are few remaining who would argue that publication of the Pentagon Papers, or the disclosure of the various crimes of the Watergate case, damaged the country. In fact, they made its institutions stronger and healthier. And I need not remind you that in 1961, after The Times refrained from disclosing the Bay of Pigs invasion plans, President John F. Kennedy remarked that he wished the decision had gone the other way, since that would have prevented a national fiasco.

The Overseas Press Club of America, which has defended press freedom around the world for more than 65 years, often reminds foreign governments that a free press, however inconvenient it may be to official secrecy, is a foundation of good government. No nation in history has been better served by its journalists than the United States. We urge you to refrain from attacking them now.


Richard B. Stolley





Vice President Dick Cheney

Office of the Vice President

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20500

Ambassador Karen Hughes

Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy

Public Communication Division

PA/PL/PC, Rm. 2206

U.S. Department of State

Washington, DC 20520

Bill Keller, Executive Editor

The New York Times