Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Duck and Cover: Americans have officially formed themselves into a circular firing squad over the War on Terrorism. Sure there were squabbles before about Iraq, Gitmo, and the like. But now we're going ballistic over the nitty gritty details of catching terrorists.

The New York Times (along with The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post) reported about a secret government program used to track the international financial transactions made by terrorists. It involved an organization nobody had ever heard of (Swift), was limited to international dealings that didn't concern most Americans, and it seemed to reside within the law. To top it all off, it was successful in nabbing terrorists.

Should journalists have exposed this program? Unlike the revelation of the NSA-wiretap program, this one doesn't seem to break any laws, require Congressional oversight, or even delve into the creepy world of invasion of privacy. That makes it hard to come up with a compelling reason to cover this program. But with the large controversy over the other secret terrorist-surveillance programs, how could a self-respecting newspaper sit on such a story?

Let's see what the different parties have to say.

For the conservatives, you've got Powerline once again calling for The New York Times to be thrown in jail. The program was classified, and publishing classified information is against the law. Case closed.

That's nice, except I don't think a dramatic lockup of journalists who report on the goings on in government will really quell the controversy about whether the Bush administration is trampling on the rights of ordinary Americans. In fact, it kind of plays into the liberal caricature of conservatives' ruling with an iron fist. Just because something is classified, doesn't mean it can't be exposed. The government classifies documents and programs to cover up embarrassing situations all the time. And while federal law does forbid exposing classified material, the U.S. Constitution forbids the government from restricting freedom of the press.

The media responds through Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. I thought Howell Raines was the biggest asshole to grace the halls of the Gray Lady. Mr. Keller is quickly trying to overshadow him.

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government's anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that's the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)
This line has been ridiculed all over the blogosphere, best by Instapundit. The arrogance of Mr. Keller is overwhelming, asserting essentially that because he can do something, he will, while only playing lip service to the consequences. And nobody can stop him. While he's trying to accuse President Bush overusing his power, Mr. Keller has shown that the news media can't be trusted with its power. Somehow this debate has been completely turned around, taking the spotlight off the missteps of the government and on the corruption of the news media.

Mr. Keller continues to argue that the press shouldn't take its orders from the president. This is the most ludicrous straw man I have ever heard. Nobody is saying that the media should become a government pawn. We're just asking whether the newspapers even thought about what they were doing, or bothered to use a little common sense. Just goes to show how journalists make for lousy politicians.

The liberals. They are strangely quiet. Kevin Drum asked whether the revelation of this program will have some positive benefits because now that terrorists know that they can't use this method to finance attacks, they will have to come up with other ways that may be more difficult. Um, yeah, but it will also make it more difficult to catch them. And we want to catch as many of them as easily and as quickly as we can.

I thought The New York Times provided us with some top-notch journalism when it exposed the NSA-wiretap program. Even if the program is legitimate and hasn't been abused, it comes dangerously close to encroaching on civil liberties. The news coverage will help create safeguards to allow the program to continue but with necessary oversight.

The news coverage on the Swift program doesn't seem to do any such good. But worse than exposing a legitimate program, it exposed the depravity of the politics surrounding the War on Terrorism.


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