Friday, June 23, 2006

"We've done it before, we'll do it again"

The same day that the Justice Department announces that a home-grown, al-Qaeda sympathizing terrorist cell in Miami had been disrupted, the NY Times took it upon themselves to expose yet another secretive US government program aimed at protecting Americans from further terror attacks similar to what the Miami Seven had aspired to. Yep, here we go again.

This time around, the Times reveals the cooperation between US intelligence and a banking consortium--SWIFT--designed to track financial dealings internationally. The Times says of it: Swift's database provides a rich hunting ground for government investigators. Swift is a crucial gatekeeper, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money among 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. The cooperative is owned by more than 2,200 organizations, and virtually every major commercial bank, as well as brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges, uses its services. Swift routes more than 11 million transactions each day, most of them across borders.

The cooperative's message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Starting with tips from intelligence reports about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a "24-7" operation.

As indicated by the Times' report, the general consensus within the government is that this program is in fact legal even as it pushes at the edge of the envelope. Attorneys at Treasury and Justice concluded..."that the privacy laws applied to banks, not to a banking cooperative like Swift. "

Likewise, reporters Erich Lichtblau and James Risen document successes that have come as a result of this effort. So let's recap quickly...

We have a program that is generally accepted as legal and effective at fulfilling it's purpose. Namely, drying up terrorist monies around the world and providing information that leads to arrests of terrorist suspects and sympathizers.

So then, why if you are the NY Times would you divulge this information? According to Times' editor Bill Keller, it's because of some compelling "public interest":

Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor, said: "We have listened closely to the administration's arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest."

I've thought about this all day, I've read the several roundups of opinion and blogger commentary and for the life of me I haven't discovered this "public interest." Scott Ott in his comic-tary makes the only argument I can get my head around:

Under a secret program launched in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, which killed 3,000 people on American soil, The New York Times gained access to private information from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and disseminated it periodically on paper and electronically to al Qaeda and other terror organizations.

News of the covert "intel-sifting and sharing" program follows revelations by the Times and other major media operations that the Bush administration ordered monitoring of major international bank transactions after the 9/11 attacks, which toppled two of the tallest buildings in the United States.

Last year, the Times revealed that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on phone calls to and from suspected terrorists in an effort to prevent another attack like 9/11, in which a civilian jetliner was used in a missile strike on U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon.
Times executive editor Bill Keller, in a hastily-called news conference, assured Americans that the scope of the intel-sifting and sharing program is "strictly limited," and that the results are "crucial to the success of the war on the war on terror."

An argument that is echoed by Andy McCarthy at NRO: The blunt reality here is that there is a war against the war. It is the jihad of privacy fetishists whose self-absorption knows no bounds. Pleas rooted in the well-being of our community hold no sway.

And so there we are. The morning's anger has given way to a sort of perplexed frustration as to what ought to happen here. Does the Times get off scott-free when it--intentionally or otherwise--reveals sensitive and classified information for the second time in six months? I don't know...

I do know though that the Times' sources should sleep very fitfully. A special prosecutor should be commissioned and an investigation into Government sources who spilled this to the Times should begin near-immediately.

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