All the news that’s fit to debate

You may have noticed that even on its best days, Washington is not a capital given to rational discourse and contemplative reason. And you couldn’t help but notice that in the days since that June 23 three-newspaper scoop on how America tracks money in the War on Terror, many of Washington’s luminaries have behaved with all the subtlety of a French soccer star head-butting his way into ignominy.

A capital that needed to reason echoed instead with shrill cries of treason. Some politicians pilloried the news media for arrogance and aiding the enemy; some praised the press as our last beacon of democracy in a city of government run amok.

In the rush to take sides, no one paused long enough to test the truth by checking the record. Here in Shrill City, few bothered to first figure out whether the big news was: a) really that big, b) really that new, c) really something Osama bin Laden and his gang didn’t know, and, we also need to add, d) really something all of us needed to know not just in general, but in such detail.

Let me first defend President Bush and Vice President Cheney by saying that I don’t mean to imply that they are among those who failed to figure out the truth before speaking. They of course knew the truth _ that the answers to the first three questions were all no.

They knew it because they had been talking publicly about how they were tracking terrorists’ money ever since 9/11, and their officials took reporters on a tour in 2003 to see how international bankers were cooperating. They knew the United Nations had issued a series of reports in 2002 that not only detailed the efforts, but mentioned the Belgian-based banking cooperative known by the acronym “Swift” that was the basis of last month’s scoops. They knew that a U.N. report even listed countries that were not cooperating with the money-tracking _ a revelation that no doubt helped Osama bin Laden far more than anything we read in our newspapers last month.

Yet Bush officials found themselves with an irresistible opportunity to launch another Rove-rage attack against unpatriotic liberal elites, carefully calculated as always. This one was aimed at the news media in general, and especially the so-called liberal media elite that conservative demagogues most love to hate _ The New York Times. (Or, as Alabama’s old populist governor, George Wallace, always drawled it out, exaggerating his derision as his 1968 presidential campaign crowds up north, as well as down south, cheered him on: “The Newww Yaaawwwk Taahhmmes!”) Never mind that this scoop was also obtained by excellent reporters at the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Which brings us to the last question, which is not about the politicians but the press. We journalists must always be aware that some published details may add little to what we, the public, needed to know, but may greatly help al Qaeda or other terrorists. I think I have found one.

Buried in the 29th paragraph, The New York Times reported two facts about the information provided by the Swift bankers: “The data does not allow the government to track routine financial activity, like A.T.M. withdrawals, confined to this country, or to see bank balances, Treasury officials said. And the information is not provided in real time _ Swift generally turns it over several weeks later.”

The fact that the data provided doesn’t include ATM records could be useful to Osama, et al. And it seems even more plausible that the second fact _ the disclosure that the data doesn’t reach U.S. officials until “several weeks” after the banking wire transaction occurs _ could be even more useful to terrorists.

Former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who served on the 9/11 Commission and is now president of the Center for National Policy, shares that concern. In an interview the other day, I asked him about the facts contained in that paragraph.

“It is one thing to let the American people know generally what is being done,” Roemer said. “But we know that al Qaeda mines this sort of information. It seems to me that we should have gone more toward the side of security and not published that particular information.”

There was much in last month’s news reports that served the public interest _ and the editors made the right call in publishing the overall story. But we probably didn’t need to know all the news that could fit in print.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)