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The press, in an unsettling firefight of its own

T.F. BOGGS is a 24-year-old sergeant in the Army Reserves serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, where he helps to provide security for a military base in Mosul. He is also an occasional blogger, venting his views at On Sunday, those views took the form of a letter to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. Two days earlier, the Times (along with The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times) had exposed the existence of a top-secret government effort to monitor the international movement of funds between Al Qaeda and its financial collaborators.

``Your recent decision to publish information about a classified program intended to track the banking transactions of possible terrorists is not only detrimental to America but also to its fighting men and women overseas," Boggs wrote. ``Terrorism happens here every day because there are rich men out there willing to support the . . . terrorist who plants bombs and shoots soldiers. . . . Without money, terrorism in Iraq would die because there would no longer be supplies for IED's, no mortars . . . and no motivation for people to abandon regular work in hopes of striking it rich after killing a soldier. Thank you for continually contributing to the deaths of my fellow soldiers."

Boggs isn't the only angry soldier the Times has heard from. Lieutenant Thomas Cotton, a Harvard Law School graduate who practiced law in Washington before becoming an infantry officer, wrote from Baghdad (in a letter posted on the influential Powerline website) about the roadside explosion that recently ``killed one soldier and severely injured another from my 130-man company." Cotton, too, underscored the fact that terrorism runs on money. The people trying to kill him and his men ``require financing to obtain mortars and artillery shells, priming explosives, wiring and circuitry, not to mention for training and payments to locals willing to emplace bombs . . . You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here."

It obviously didn't come as news to the editor of the Times that money is crucial to terrorism, or that Al Qaeda will be a threat until its financial supply lines are choked off. The Times had made that point itself in a strong editorial less than two weeks after 9/11. ``Washington and its allies must also disable the financial networks used by terrorists," the editorial said. ``The Bush administration is preparing new laws to help track terrorists through their money-laundering activity. . . Much more is needed, including . . . greater cooperation with foreign banking authorities. There must also be closer coordination among America's law enforcement, national security, and financial regulatory agencies. . . . If America is going to wage a new kind of war against terrorism, it must act on all fronts, including the financial one."

It was just such reasoning that led the Treasury Department to develop the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program that last week's stories exposed. As even those stories made clear, the program was legal, disclosed to members of Congress, carefully limited to prevent abuse, and effective. Among other successes, administration officials told the Times, it led to the capture of the Indonesian terrorist who masterminded the horrific 2002 bombing of a Bali resort. Why would any responsible media outlet want to sabotage such a program? If not out of sheer political animus -- contempt for the Bush administration and opposition to the war -- then why? Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet said yesterday that he ``felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts." Keller, of The New York Times, said the same thing last week. (The Times is owned by the New York Times Co., which also owns The Boston Globe.) But neither has explained just how the public interest is advanced by deliberately compromising a crucial counterterrorism tool. Once upon a time, mainstream journalists would have been aghast at the revelation of national security secrets in wartime. Apparently only some of us still feel that way.

The media may not be the most detested institution in America, but it is surely a contender for the title. A Harris poll in March found that only 14 percent of American adults express a ``great deal" of confidence in the press, while 34 percent -- one American in three -- have ``hardly any" confidence in it.

The nation's most trusted institution, by contrast, is the military. According to Harris, 47 percent of Americans have a ``great deal" of confidence in the armed forces. Only 14 percent have ``hardly any." No doubt it is just a coincidence that the small fraction of the public that disdains the military is equal to the small fraction that greatly admires the media. But at a time when prominent newspapers are running stories that are apt to get more soldiers killed, I'll bet Sergeant Boggs and Lieutenant Cotton don't think so.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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