NEW YORK -- Published reports that the U.S. was monitoring international banking transactions were not news to the terrorists who were its target because the Bush administration had already "talked openly" about the effort, The New York Times' top editor said Sunday.
In defending his paper's decision to reveal details of the program, Times executive editor Bill Keller told an interviewer on CBS's "Face the Nation" that such operations are important to an informed public.
"I don't think the threshold test of whether you write about how the government is waging the war on terror is whether they've done something that's blatantly illegal or outrageous," Keller said. "I think you probably would like to know what they're doing that's successful as well."
Reports in several newspapers last week that the White House was tracking terrorist-related financial transactions in the international banking system triggered a new storm of criticism, primarily from Republicans, about news disclosures of secret U.S. efforts to pre-empt terrorist plots and activities.
President Bush said the latest revelation was "disgraceful" and did "great harm" to the country. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, reiterated his view on CNN's "Late Edition" on Sunday that The Times should be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act for repeatedly revealing classified information.
"The Times can't have it both ways," King said. "They can't on the one hand say there's no harm in releasing this. Everybody knew about it. But on the other hand, we had to put it on Page One because it was so top secret."
Keller, on CBS, said it is the government that "likes to have it both ways. ... They confide in us when they want to advertise the programs that are successful. And then they rebuke us if we write about something they would prefer we didn't write about."
He added that he is only a little surprised by the level of criticism the paper is receiving.
"I mean, it's an election year. Beating up on The New York Times is red meat for the conservative base," Keller said. "But I don't think this is all politics. I think the administration is a little embarrassed. This is the most secretive White House we've had since the Nixon White House."
Keller told CBS host Bob Scheiffer that "when lives are clearly at risk," The Times often withholds information from publication.
"But this was a case where clearly the terrorists or the people who finance them know quite well, because the Treasury Department and the White House have talked openly about it, that they monitor international banking transactions. It's not news to the terrorists," he said.