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Sam Tanenhaus: Arsonist

The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

Summing up both of my objections to Tanenhaus’s article, I wrote: “To confuse an international surveillance program with a domestic one is to be as imprecise and inflammatory as to use the word ‘treason’ in describing a much less serious violation of the law.”

“Inflammatory” was the right word. For if in his initial article Tanenhaus was tending toward the incendiary, his response to my letter, now published in TNR, is a Molotov cocktail.

First he accuses me of propagating “nonsense.” Then he pours a bit of gasoline into the bottle, saying that the “charge of espionage implies a corollary charge of treason,” and that in distinguishing between the two I was employing a “mode of clarification” that is precisely like “one used a half-century ago by Joseph McCarthy.”

But I never said, to repeat, that editors at the Times committed either treason or espionage. Section 798 of Title 18, the provision at issue, is entitled “Disclosure of classified information” and it is very easy to understand. Even analysts who disagree with me about the desirability of prosecuting the Times—Morton Halperin, for example, of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—concur that the Times did indeed break this law.

As for his calling the NSA surveillance program “domestic,” Tanenhaus justifies this with a single citation from the December 16, 2005 Washington Post in which it was called “domestic spying”—as if that settled the matter. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t add a single fact to the discussion, except that someone at the Washington Post is also confused.

I have read a lot of Tanenhaus’s writings over the years in the Times, in Vanity Fair, in Slate, and even in COMMENTARY. I have never known him to break into a sweat or even get hot under the collar. For that matter, though he writes at great length about current events, I have never seen him stake out a genuinely controversial position on anything—attacks on safe targets like Pat Buchanan or Ann Coulter clearly do not count. His past reticence on matters of importance was always something of a mystery to me, although I have had my theories. Whatever explains that past reticence, his present act of minor intellectual arson in defense of his employer, in which he does not hesitate to toss in the name of Joseph McCarthy as tinder, offers an additional clue to the puzzle—about which, once again, I have my theories.


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