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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 June 2006, 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK
President v press: Rumbling row
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

The Bush administration has launched a full-throated attack on the New York Times in response to the newspaper's disclosure of a secret programme which the White House says is designed to track financial transactions by terrorists.

President Bush at news conference
President Bush is "genuinely angry", an expert says

Officials from George W Bush on down have blasted the newspaper, with the president calling the reporting "disgraceful".

Vice-President Dick Cheney said he was offended by the publication, saying the Times - which was the first but not the only newspaper to print the story - had made it more difficult to defend against further terrorist attacks.

And when Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote an open letter defending the newspaper's action, he drew a blistering reply from Treasury Secretary John Snow.

"The paper has given itself free licence to expose any covert activity that it happens to learn of - even those that are legally grounded, responsibly administered, independently overseen, and highly effective," he wrote.

'Always annoyed'

The row is not the first run-in between the Bush administration and the New York Times - or, indeed, between a president and the press.

"All presidents are annoyed with the press," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who has studied the White House for more than 30 years.

You're not going to have a lot of people in government who are going to be championing the New York Times
Martha Joynt Kumar
"They think that the press should cover them as they believe they should be covered, write about things they think should be written about - and should not write about things they consider to be proprietary information."

The Nixon White House famously fought to block the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon papers.

But, Prof Kumar said, this dispute is not like that spat, which ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court and resulted in a victory for the press.

Classified though they were, the Pentagon papers were an historical analysis of the Vietnam war.

The Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, on the other hand, is an ongoing effort.

No defenders

And while she said the administration could energise its supporters by seeking a public brawl with the press over national security, she added that she thought President Bush was "genuinely angry" about the report.

"This is not something he is creating for a political purpose. He believes the programme has been compromised."

US Treasury Secretary John Snow

She said the New York Times should not expect to find many defenders in Washington.

"You don't have any outrage from members of Congress about this programme. You're not going to have a lot of people in government who are going to be championing the New York Times."

At the same time, she pointed out, it must have been someone in government who told the newspaper about the programme in the first place.

"It's not as if they made it up. Some parts of the government were releasing this information."

That presents the White House with a dilemma - do they go after the press or after the leaker?

"Presidents have tried to track down leaks over the years, but it has always been a pretty messy business," Prof Kumar said.

In fact, the Bush administration itself has had a leak investigation backfire, forcing Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to resign.

Complicated relationship

The White House may be more inclined to punish the press than the leaker this time.

HAVE YOUR SAY
If your transactions are completely legitimate then why should you be worried?
Marc Kay, New York, USA

Congressman Peter King, a Bush ally, has suggested the Times should be prosecuted for publishing the report.

Bill Keller, the Times's executive editor, said earlier this year the press faced a "threat" from the administration.

"There's sometimes a vindictive tone in the way [administration officials] talk about dragging reporters before grand juries and in the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors," he told the National Journal, a Washington weekly, in response to an previous row over his paper's publishing details of another classified surveillance programme.

However this row plays out, the White House's dealings with the press will remain delicately balanced, Prof Kumar said.

"The relationship is complicated. You use them when you can, and you criticise them when you have to."


SEE ALSO
US defends secret money tracking
23 Jun 06 |  Americas

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