Editors Defend Reporting on Gov't Tracking Terror Funds

Top editors from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, responding to criticism over publishing stories about a government program that tracked millions of financial records in search of terrorists, on Saturday defended their decisions to publish government secrets.

"We weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing," wrote Dean Baquet, Los Angeles Times editor, and Bill Keller, New York Times executive editor, in an op-ed piece that ran in both newspapers.

"There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public's interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information," the piece continued. "We make our best judgment."

The editors wrote that judging whether to report sensitive information is a deliberate and intensive process, but they have an obligation to inform. "Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price."

The editors cited examples in which both of their newspapers had made decisions to not publish certain stories or details out of security concerns, noting that The New York Times story about the financial records tracking focused on its sweep and legal basis rather than how the program operated.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and some congressional leaders were most critical of The New York Times, which last year also reported on an electronic eavesdropping program.

In New York on Friday, Cheney called the leaks and their publication "very damaging to our national security. Putting this information on the front page makes it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks."

A House resolution that declared the reports had "placed the lives of Americans in danger" was approved 227-183 this past week, supported by most Republicans and opposed by most Democrats.

The op-ed piece appeared one day after The Wall Street Journal, which also reported about the financial tracking program, distanced itself from the Times story.

"Anyone who understands how publishing decisions are made know that different newspapers make up their minds differently," the Journal editorial said, noting that the Treasury Department approached the paper offering declassified information about the program.