"Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?' All I suggest is that you add the question ‘Is it in the interest of national security?'"
-John F Kennedy
Recently a story by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and later Wall Street Journal is being decried as just such an effort. It was a story detailing efforts by the US and other governments to track and examine the banking and tracking system for monetary transfers internationally, to find terrorist activity and backers.
Some of the information was not news; for example just days after 9/11, President Bush signed an executive order posted on the White House website calling for greater cooperation with foreign entities to monitor money that might be headed to terrorist groups. In 2003, the head of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control Richard Newcomb publicly credited the president for enabling US law enforcement and intelligence agencies to nab suspected terrorists by following the money trail.
However, some of the information was not known, they were in fact classified details about how this was being done and data that the terrorists did not know. The New York Times article used the word "secret" eight times to describe what was being done and how, and was asked personally by the Bush administration not to print the story because it would damage the war effort against global terrorism. Some excerpts that demonstrate the clear fact that the New York Times was aware that this was not public information:
Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said.Even the reporter who wrote this story, Eric Lichtblau, wrote an article in 2005 about how the government "U.S. Lacks Strategy to Curb Terror Funds." In this article were these lines pointing out how his sources seemed unaware of the program and what we were doing as well:
In terrorism prosecutions, intelligence officials have been careful to "sanitize," or hide the origins of evidence collected through the program to keep it secret, officials said.
But experts in the field say the results have been spotty, with few clear dents in Al Qaeda's ability to move money and finance terrorist attacks.Bill Keller, the editor in charge of this story, admitted that it might help terrorists out, and one has to question why, exactly, this was a front-page scoop that several leading newspapers carried if it was so well known already and old news? Junkyard Blog points out that at least six terrorists that we know about were nabbed by this program until it was outed by the news media. According to the Justice Department, at least three investigations were jeopardized by the news stories about this program.
Yet the Times and other papers printed it anyway. Why? This is the question on many a blogger and American's mind, who according to one poll at least supposedly as many as 66% think that there ought to be prosecutions for this breach of classified information laws. At least some of the answer can be found in the original New York Times story, in these excerpts:
Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.The implication, of course, being "Americans being monitored by the lawless Bush administration, see, they're violating your privacy and civil rights again, see? See?" The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the right to privacy does not extend to protect information in the hands of third parties, such as SWIFT, involving financial transactions. Nor do the provisions of the 1978 Right to Financial Privacy Act apply, because SWIFT is not a financial institution. But what matters is not the facts of the case, rather the perception that people can infer from the stories.
The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans' financial records. Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.
This is a followup to previous stories by the times, all about various efforts to fight the war on terror, all revealing classified information in violation of federal law, all revealing ways we're defeating the enemies of the United States, and all in an effort to smear and demonize the administration.
Just a few months ago, several stories on the FISA wiretapping of various calls overseas with known terrorist and terrorist contacts was announced worldwide. The fact that this was not only classified information but a clear assistance to terrorists to avoid being listened in on was meaningless to the times, they wanted to paint a picture of the Bush Administration listening in on phone calls of Americans without a warrant or court order.
The fact that the FISA courts clearly stated that these wiretaps were done in perfect legal order and no laws were being broken is ignored to this day by people who claim the administration is a den of civil rights-violating fascists. But this was far from the first such story by the Times, or other news sources. Here's a quick history:
•In 1941, FDR-hating Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick ran an article revealing key elements of the government’s Victory Program, including proposed troop levels, potential theaters of engagement in Europe and the Pacific, and estimated war costs. Opposed to US involvement in the war, McCormick was apparently trying to sabotage any such thoughts or attempts.There are more examples of the press apparently working for the other side, or at least attempting to cover and gather news that is harmful to the US. What has happened over the years, why recently has the press become so hostile to the military and so willing to share secrets that damage our ability to fight the enemy? Harold Evans at War Stories blog has some thoughts:
•By 1942, Americans had the ability to decode at least part of the Japanese JN-25 naval code. References to an attack on Midway were figured out, and the result was the most critical sea battle of the war, demolishing much of the Japanese Navy on June 7th. Shortly after the Battle of Midway the morning’s front page carried the headline NAVY HAD WORD OF JAP PLANS TO STRIKE AT SEA. This was just before invading Guadalcanal, and by sheer coincidence, the Japanese stopped using that code. The US lost a valuable tool that undoubtedly saved many lives at Midway but cost many at Guadalcanal.
•In 1983, the Washington Post ran a story about how American intelligence was reading coded radio traffic between terrorist plotters in Syria and their overseers in Iran. Coincidentally, after this story ran, communications stopped, and five months later they struck again, destroying the Marine barracks in Beirut and killing 241 Americans.
•In 1971, the New York Times and CBS news ran a story The Pentagon Papers. It was built from thousands of classified documents about Vietnam, and President Nixon fought hard to stop their publication. The documents were not about the Nixon administration's policies, but were instead about the previous Democratic administrations'.
•In both the Falkland Island war and Desert Storm, the press were heavily censored and prevented from certain information in an attempt to avoid this kind of thing happening again. Walter Cronkite protested "What are they trying to hide?" Perhaps something that saves lives, Walter.
•In December of 2001, the Global Relief Foundation was about to be raided because it's charitable appearance was merely a front to disguise terrorist funding activities. Reporter Philip Shenon of the New York Times tipped off the organization before the raid.
•In 2004, The New York Times printed a story all about an al`Qaeda computer who had been providing critical intelligence on the terror group's plans for coming attacks on the West. The times ran a story naming the man, which negated much of his value by letting the terrorists know who we had and thus what he knew and had access to. "After his capture he admitted being an al`Qaeda member and agreed to send e-mails to his contacts," a Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters. "He sent encoded e-mails and received encoded replies. He's a great hacker and even the U.S. agents said he was a computer whiz."
•In 2004, a BBC reporter went on a walk in Fallujah during the final push to wipe the terrorists and rebels there from control of the city. He reported on his findings, and it's not until he gets to the fourth paragraph from the end that you realize he's with the terrorists and rebels as a friend and reporting from their side and what they say.
•Several people have pointed out in the past that video and pictures of carbombing cannot have come from someone called to the scene, they are too recent, too knowing of when the explosions will go off. When you get footage of an IED going off, you knew it was there. Either the press has contacts with reporters, or is there when the explosive goes off.
•Several reporters have been arrested when terrorists are captured by US forces, working with the terrorists and rebels as an "imbedded" reporter, perhaps.
I believe relationships between untutored media and suspicious military are likely to get worse, largely for generational reasons. A postwar study of the Falklands conflict by British journalists Derrik Mercer, Geoff Mungham and Kevin Williams concluded that the journalists' troublesome ignorance of military affairs in general, and the Royal Navy in particular, was characteristic of a generation that had not served any time in the military, unlike correspondents in earlier wars. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 witnessed a similar phenomenon: many of the younger reporters had little experience covering the military; most had never worn their country's uniform. In the Suez War of 1956, the reporters with the fleet and the editors at home had either served in World War II or been postwar conscripts; the World War II reporters were of the same generation as the military men and identified easily with them.The defense the newspapers offer up is "it's in the public interest" but there's a problem here. "Public interest" cannot be defined as "whatever people might be interested in or sells newspapers," because simply being part of the news media does not negate one's personal responsibility to the nation, to one's neighbor, and to the world at large. The identity and location of a mob informant hidden in the Witness Protection Program or the details on an ongoing investigation of a mass murderer might be interesting to the public but they would be unethical to print.
The free press is a dearly-held right in the United States, something Americans treasure and leap to the defense of. But with that freedom comes responsibility, and a duty to show care in what is covered. Just because you can do a thing does not mean you should. And when the line is crossed from printing information out of a desire to get the story to a real desire to hurt the administration, war effort, or country, something is very wrong. Certainly someone ought not be above the law or public duty simply by becoming a reporter. Working for the news media does not make someone immune to prosecution, nor should it.