Saturday, July 01, 2006
THE TIMES, THEY AREN'T A-CHANGIN' - A QUIZ
o, I'm not about to offer a link to one of those cutesy web quizzes that tell you which Renaissance philosopher you most resemble, or something like that. The Times, they are the New York Times. A QUIZ is an acronym for "Al Qaeda's Ultimate Intelligence Zervice (ok, so it doesn't quite work, but close enough for jazz).
Lots of people are really, really mad at the Times for a decision they made about a week ago -- for very good reason. The paper blew the lid off an effective, legitimate, and by their own admission legal terrorist surveillance program, a kind of reprise of their exposure late last year of a similar program which targetted international terrorist communications. The immediate result was quite similar as well.
The NSA program, designed to map and track terrorist networks through their international phone calls (either originating or terminating outside the US), became widely known in the mass media as a "domestic spying" program. This latest exposure of the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) bank transfer monitoring, has many pundits wringing their hands over the government "snooping through everybody's bank records." Such a construction is of course an absolute fallacy, but fits well into the worldview of those already predisposed to believe it. It also helps when so many seem to build their views from reading the headlines rather than the details.
The SWIFT monitoring program was conducted with the cooperation of international banking authorities responding to subpoenas for specific records, which the Belgium based Society provided with an independent oversight mechanism. I would hazard a guess that at least 98% of the Americans now whining about the government looking into their bank books, have never actually made a SWIFT money transfer.
I've done it a few times, the last one being a transfer to an aid group in Indonesia conducting rescue work after the tsunami. The originating and destination banks must both have a SWIFT code identifier, like an electronic address for the bank branch. The SWIFT record will show that on a particular date, "x" amount of funds was transfered from account A in Thailand to account B in Indonesia. That's it. The SWIFT record contained nothing about my account or its contents, apart from the number. The system records international funds transfers, i.e. connections. Not your private banking data. Sheesh!
It was a good program for mapping out connections of interest to terrorist trackers. If, through other investigative measures, an account somewhere is identified as a conduit for terrorist financiers, one would think it's a good idea to find the SWIFT connections from that account to find other possible nodes in the network. The Times itself concedes that this process has been effective. If the bonehead(s) within the US intelligence community, who for whatever spiteful reason spilled this program to the NYT, had done so 3 years ago (the program began immediately after Sept. 11, 2001), the Indonesian terrorist Hambali may never have been captured in August 2003. The SWIFT surveillance program has been credited with being a key to tracking him down to an apartment in Ayutthaya, Thailand -- about an hour's drive from where I'm sitting right now. I believe the SWIFT records may have led directly to a cohort, who in turn gave away Hamali's whereabouts under interrogation.
Hambali was the highest ranking Southeast Asian member of al Qaeda, and is said to have had a place on the innermost "Shura Council" of bin Laden, who he had known since the late 1980's in Afghanistan. He was later involved with the founders of Jemaah Islamiyah, Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir during their self-exile in Malaysia. He laid fairly low during the late '90's before launching a wave of church bombings in Indonesia in 2000. He also participated in the 2000 "Al Qaeda Summit" in Kuala Lumpur which included two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and had provided money and documents to Zacarias Moussaoui. Hambali is also believed to have masterminded the catastrophic Bali bombing in October 2002, which killed more than 200 innocents. He moved between various locations in Thailand and Cambodia until his capture, a joint effort of Thai police and the CIA. His current location has not been disclosed.
Thai authorities said at the time that Hambali was planning a "big event" prior to his capture -- explosives and weapons were also seized. He had received a "large sum of money for a major attack" earlier in 2003 from an al Qaeda leader in Pakistan, according to official US sources. Indeed there was a big event being planned in Bangkok that year -- just two months later, in October, was the APEC summit which brought leaders of 21 countries together here, including President Bush. What would the Times have said, if the government leaker had given them this information three years ago, if they had then revealed it -- making SWIFT an instant household word, enabling a terrorist here to avoid detection, enabling Hambali to remain underground, enabling a "major attack" to take place? Suppose a number of world leaders had been killed, along with potentially hundreds of others, and we later found out that blowing the lid off a legitimate, effective terrorist tracking program had led directly to this result? Would editor Bill Keller still be blubbering about the public's "legitimate interest" in the details?
In the fallout over this issue I've read of several other successes stemming from the SWIFT surveillance, it isn't only Hambali. So far, nobody has come forward with examples of privacy being violated or other undue restrictions on their rights. Public interest does not necessarily mean knowing all the details of terror surveillance, it can also refer to the fundamental interest of not being blown to pieces. The Times' editors and owner seem offended at being told that they ought not to reveal precise operational details of an overall effort to follow terrorist financial networks. They say that we already knew the agencies were tracking these networks, so it was fair game. How can such stupid people be running a newspaper?
The Bush administration is fighting two wars -- the one against international terrorism, and the one against the media's war against the war on terrorism. Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who has worked on terrorism cases, puts it plain and simple.
Yet again, the New York Times was presented with a simple choice: help protect American national security or help al Qaeda.The administration pleaded with editor Bill Keller and reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (who seem to have quite an "in" with the loose-lips at the security agencies) not to publish the details. I saw Lichtblau on Washington Journal last week, and his attitude about it all was enough to show why that wouldn't ever work. Officials prevailed on both chairmen of the 911 Commission to try their influence. Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton had already known the program, but Chairman Thomas Kean had not. He was briefed by the Treasury Dept, and says that...
Yet again, it sided with al Qaeda.
I came away with the idea that this was a good program, one that was legal, one that was not violating anybody’s civil liberties…and something the U.S. government should be doing to make us safer.In fact, the Commission had recommended exactly such comprehensive financial tracking in its report (although the government had started it immediately after Sept. 11 anyway). This is actually the one area that the Commission had given the administration high marks in their "Report Card" released last December.
In fact, the only area in which the administration scored an “A” — actually an “A-” — was in its efforts on terrorist financing. “The U.S. has won the support of key countries in tackling terrorism finance,” the commissioners wrote, “though there is still much to do in the Gulf States and in South Asia. The government has made significant strides in using terrorism finance as an intelligence tool.”In the wake of the exposure and subsequent uproar from people who want the agencies to actually find terrorists, Times editor Keller issued a letter to readers. A long and rambling piece of pontificating fluff replete with a certain creepy condescension, he only barely got to the point in his second to last paragraph:
Now, a major part of that effort appears to have been compromised. “That’s the way it is in this war,” says Kean. “There are a number of programs we are using to try to disrupt terrorist activities, and you never know which one is going to be successful. We knew that this one already had been.”
A secondary argument against publishing the banking story was that publication would lead terrorists to change tactics. But that argument was made in a half-hearted way. It has been widely reported — indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department — that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror. Terror financiers know this, which is why they have already moved as much as they can to cruder methods. But they also continue to use the international banking system, because it is immeasurably more efficient than toting suitcases of cash.These efforts, according to those who actually made them, were anything but "half-hearted." Treasury Secretary John Snow made that abundantly clear in his open letter to the Times. There was a solid, full hearted effort to keep the details of a covert program from becoming public, and Keller can't seem to see the difference between knowing that financial tracking is taking place, and blabbing about the specific operational details. Frankly, I thought Keller's first draft of his missive was a lot more honest. Iowahawk's diligent dumpster-divers pulled it out of a trashcan somewhere behind 43rd St. Roving reporter Scott Ott also has more on the expansion of executive editor authority.
Has the Times always had such an aversion to covert intel programs which aim to unravel terror networks? Not at all. Less than two weeks after the attacks on America, the Times wrote:
The Bush administration is preparing new laws to help track terrorists through their money-laundering activity and is readying an executive order freezing the assets of known terrorists. Much more is needed, including stricter regulations, the recruitment of specialized investigators and greater cooperation with foreign banking authorities. There must also must be closer coordination among America's law enforcement, national security and financial regulatory agencies. ... Washington should revive international efforts begun during the Clinton administration to pressure countries with dangerously loose banking regulations to adopt and enforce stricter rules. These need to be accompanied by strong sanctions against doing business with financial institutions based in these nations. The Bush administration initially opposed such measures. But after the events of Sept. 11, it appears ready to embrace them.But that's all water under the bridge now, I suppose. There's a war against the war on! (Actually, the war against the war is just a sub-set of the War against Bush)
The Treasury Department also needs new domestic legal weapons to crack down on money laundering by terrorists. The new laws should mandate the identification of all account owners, prohibit transactions with "shell banks" that have no physical premises and require closer monitoring of accounts coming from countries with lax banking laws. Prosecutors, meanwhile, should be able to freeze more easily the assets of suspected terrorists. The Senate Banking Committee plans to hold hearings this week on a bill providing for such measures. It should be approved and signed into law by President Bush.
"But," some say, "the NYT wasn't the only paper to run the story. The LA Times and Wall Street Journal also went with the story. Why do they always pick on our trusted Grey Lady?" Yes indeed, the Times was quick to get that talking point out, shielding itself behind the other papers which followed suit. Last night I saw WSJ editor Bret Stephens on Washington Journal. He outlined exactly how this all came down, a story that is also forcefully put forward in a WSJ editorial yesterday.
After the Times stubbornly refused to listen to reason, and it was apparent that nothing would stop them, the administration laid out the facts as they actually were and discussed them with the Times reporters. A Treasury offical says that "they had about 80% of the story, but they had about 30% of it wrong." The now declassified information was then shared with a WSJ reporter (and likely others as well). Had the Times not stubbornly insisted in its right to reveal this classified wartime surveillance program, none of that would have been necessary. The Times are simply trying to hide behind others for this mess, when in fact they are solely responsible. Read the editorial, it's pretty strong stuff. The C-SPAN program with Bret Stephens can be viewed here (requires Real Player).
Despite all my snark against Bill Keller and his "executive editor authority," I suspect that he's not the one ultimately responsible. A decision of this magnitude could only have been made by the real power behind the paper, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., affectionately known as "Putsch" or "Pinch" or something like that. I'd known nothing about this guy until having seen him a few weeks ago giving a commencement address to the graduating class of a New York university. I really couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was evident from his address that he sees himself conducting a righteous battle against ... well I don't know what exactly. Bushy neo-cons? Republicans at large? He seemed like a spoiled rich kid imagining himself as Admiral of the Forces of Goodness aboard the destroyer Grey Lady, engaged in an epic sea battle against the Legions of Rove, or something. Stuck in the Sixties, and Stuck on Stupid.
Sulzberger finally responded to the controversy a week after publication, saying yesterday:
"I know many of the reporters and editors at The Wall Street Journal and have greater faith in their journalistic excellence than does the Editorial Page of their own paper. I, for one, do not believe they were unaware of the importance of what they were publishing nor oblivious to the impact such a story would have."In other words, he couldn't be bothered to respond to the substance of that WSJ editorial. He insists on hiding behind the Wall Street Journal news section (separate from the editorial section, which he swipes in his content-free comment). And besides, he's got a war to win (not the same one the rest of us want to win). His commencement address may be read here. Tell me that's not a moonbatus classicus reliving his misspent youth in the Age of Aquarius.
There will be a public protest against "treasonous reporting" of wartime secrets on Monday, July 3 at 12 p.m. at the Washington, D.C., bureau of The New York Times, 1627 I St., NW. I agree with those who counsel against criminal prosecution of the Times, but protests and boycotts are entirely legitimate. Criminal charges would only make them into shahid, and we all know that's what revolutionary mujahideen always strive for. Find the leakers on the ship, and go through Risen and Lichtblau to do it. The leakers are the real culprits, and unlike the Plame case, these committed anti-Bush partisans entrenched in the security agencies are doing real, verifiable damage. Potentially, very catastrophic damage. The reporters should be forced, by threat of the Judy Miller treatment, into revealing their treacherous sources.
Michelle Malkin's readers offer some ideas for signage at the protest, here and
here. The examples there offer a reminder that this kind of nonsense would never be tolerated by citizens during past wars, and shouldn't be during this one, either. But then, for those aboard the good ship Grey Lady, there's only one war on now -- and it's the War on Bush. Damn the torpedoes and damn everybody else too.