Monday, June 26, 2006

Disecting Bill Keller's Lame Defense

It has been business as usual at the NYT's this month. More slanted news reporting, more national security secrets leaked (read: federal crimes aided and abetted), more half-assed, nearly insulting lectures on the First Amendment (which the press believes it is the utmost authority on), and more insistence from its editors that they don't see what the big fuss is all about. At least in the cases of the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, the NSA eavesdropping program and others, the NYT has had been able to plausibly claim whistleblower status. In this case, however, that is not so.

Bill Keller's admits as much in his recent editorial in defense of publishing details of a highly classified government program in which the U.S. government, through its intelligence agencies, tracks the international financial transactions of terrorists and those suspected of terrorism, even going so far as to admit that "the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far." These admissions are about the only solid statements in Keller's editorial though.

Let's examine the editorial, attempting to ignore the more gratuitous parts of the editorial, such as Keller's jaded attempt to stake a moral high-ground by blaming criticism of the NYT story on "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", as if they don't have a point in saying so. Indeed, Keller admits later in the editorial that those questions are legitimate ones, but that "It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective". How convenient.

(Note to readers: This is a somewhat lengthy post. I'll highlight the more substantive points for those with less time or patience.)

From the top then. Keller asks, again in a way wherein he attempts to take a moral high-ground by using obviously exaggerated wording, and then tries to cloak himself in the "besides, everyone else is doing it" argument,

"Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees?"
And yet, few have suggested that the press not "disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees". In fact, what the American public, and indeed much of the press having been saying, is that the NYTs should not disregard the national security of this nation or its laws. Keller tosses out this straw man though to deflect as much attention as possible from those bedrock issues, instead pitting the himself and the noble press corps against the always-to-be-feared government. He continues,

"And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish."
Here, Keller attempts to use the "checks and balances" argument. That is, that the Founding Fathers intended for the press to be a check on government, just as the legislative branch is intended to be a check on the executive branch, and vice versa. However, while it is certainly true that the Founding Fathers intended that, this may be Keller's weakest argument (though it is the one the press most commonly relies on - it makes them sound patriotic and informed at the same time, plus, their liberal professors taught them that this is gospel). What this argument reveals though is precisely the press' attitue of self-importance and its consistent double-standards.

The press considers itself - often, it insists that it is - as important a check on the government as the various branches of government are on each other. Hence, the press is often considered the "fourth branch of government" (for example, here, The Progressive calls the press the "fourth estate"). Yet, the press will be the first to scream bloody murder when any member of the government (well, any conservative member) so much as pushes the envelope with regards to its Constitutional authority to execute their oath of office or to provide a check or balance on another branch of government.

Two examples from the front pages of the NYT illustrate this: the NSA wiretapping program, and the comments of Senators such as Tom Delay regarding the federal judiciary. In both cases, the NYTs took an almost unflinchingly negative view of these actions, all but insisting that the represented a breach of Constitutional authority. Yet, criticism and even threats by members of the Senate toward the judiciary do not come nearly as close to breaking the law or breaching the Constitutional checks and balance of powers as does the "Newspaper of Record" exposing a legal, effective, and highly classified national security program during a time of war.

But alas, the press not only holds itself as equal to the government, but considers itself far above it, all the while defending such hubris with the same Constitution which gives such broad powers to each of the actual branches of government.

And again, in the last sentence above, Keller attempts to diminish the argument into "the Press vs. the President". Keller implies that critics expect the press to "surrender to government the important decisions about what to publish", which is of course ridiculous. No one - and I'm fairly sure that a damn-near-accurate statistic - wants the press to do any such thing, and no one to my knowledge is saying so. Again, the critics are not asking the NYT to "surrender" (big-bad-scary word!) its decisions to the big-bad President, but instead to give more care to the laws and national security of this nation. After all, as one of the "four branches of government" (legislative, executive, judicial, and the press), they of all people should take care to guard this nation, its people, and its laws, should they not?

Instead, the press consistently wraps itself in the First Amendment, in essence claiming that the laws of society, government, common sense, and decency don't apply to them. Meanwhile, they call blunt politicians "scare-mongers", "extremist" and "zenophobic", label frank academics and university presidents "sexist", consider honest Americans who only voice their reasoned opinions "homophobes", all while decrying any who dare imply - or give the appearance of possibly implying if even by the Nth degree of seperation - that they may be "unpatriotic" or "a danger to national security".

"The responsibility of it weighs most heavily on us when an issue involves national security, and especially national security in times of war."

Here, one cannot help but wonder if the NYT seems so careless with our national security because it does not in fact consider us to be in a time of war. After all, it seems rather certain that much of the NYT staff does not consider the Afghanistan war to be ongoing (they hardly cover this war anymore - not enough death and sectarian strife to raise ad revenues I suppose), but they also consider the Iraq War to be illegitimate, and many consider it and the War on Terror in general to be more harmful than good, if they consider the War on Terror to be a war at all (some clearly do not).

But I digress.

Next, Keller manages to be both patronizing and insulting, in entirely opposite ways, in less than two paragraphs. In the first, he claims that,

"Editors start from the premise that citizens can be entrusted with unpleasant and complicated news, and that the more they know the better they will be able to make their views known to their elected officials."
In the next, he says,

"Forgive me, I know this is pretty elementary stuff — but it's the kind of elementary context that sometimes gets lost in the heat of strong disagreements."
So, are Mr. Keller and the NYT entrusting citizens with complicated material, or elementary material? Or are they - one must wonder....if they're thinking - entrusting elementary citizens with elementary material? Certainly, Bill Keller's cookie-cutter defense of the leaking of this vital national security program is elementary.

Keller next proceeds to all but hang himself with his own rope. First, he says,

"We have sometimes [withheld information of significance], holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so."
And then he goes on to admit that,
"It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it." [emphasis added]
One would think that since the program appears 1) fully legal, 2) highly effective, and 3) lacking unsavory aspects such as abuses of power, and therefore that the program is not only a highly classified matter of national security, but is greatly and legally contributing to our national security, that that would be "compelling reason" enough not to publish it for all the world's terrorists to see. Indeed, Keller even goes onto say that that has been no evidence that bankers or other governments involved with or who have knowledge of the program seem to mind it at all.

None of them bothered to print an editorial or news article about the program either.

Next, Bill Keller goes onto lament that,

"Since September 11, 2001, our government has launched broad and secret anti-terror monitoring programs without seeking authorizing legislation and without fully briefing the Congress."
Far more prudent then would have been for the NYT to send a letter to key members of each party of Congress - or hell, even all of Congress - regarding the program before publishing it. Though Keller acts as if Congress was kept in the dark on this program and that that provided a key motivation for the publishing of this information, he makes no mention of having revealed this report to members of Congress prior to publishing it. He mentions only "Administration officials and The Times, not only the reporters who wrote the story but senior editors, including me....national security experts not serving in the Administration."

If Bill Keller and the NYT were so concerned with the possibility that Congress was in the dark about this program, why didn't they inform them themselves, before informing every terrorist on the planet?

Alas, the NYTs appears far more concerned with besmerching the Bush Administration than with the security of this nation, its own role in safeguarding this nation, or....well, anything else for that matter.

Indeed, perhaps the NYTs' obsession with harming the Bush Administration stems at least partly from a form of self-punishment for supposedly "not being skeptical enough of the Administration's claims about the Iraqi threat." Since WWII, Germany has taken drastic actions to prevent another Holocaust, enacting laws that we as Americans would consider gross violations of our Bill of Rights. Perhaps the NYTs is wallowing in self-flaggelation over not having prevented the war, or Bush's re-election, or Blair's, or Howard's.... Not that that's an excuse.

But again, I digress.

The last part of Bill Keller's editorial proves the most lazy, not to mention nauseating. In the last two substantive - and I use that word for lack of a better one - paragraphs, Keller feigns having no knowledge that the NYTs actions in revealing other highly classified programs have in any way degraded the effectiveness of those programs or influenced America's enemies to alter their tactics, techniques or procedures in any way.

He says that, "to the best of our knowledge the eavesdropping program continues to operate much as it did before", as if he had any idea, especially after having already compromised the program and undoubtedly resulting in a significant clamp-down on any outside knowledge of it. Indeed, this seems little more than the literary incarnation of Keller's lame attempt at helping himself sleep better at night, assuming that is even an issue for him.

His next argument is even more contorted and forced than the last.
"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. "
Here, Keller means to say, in so many words, that even his actions weren't any worse than anyone else's (in this case the Treasury Dept's); he implies that terrorists already were aware of everything anyway; and that well, even if they weren't, it wont matter that much anyway.

As a former military intelligence analyst who worked on the ground in Iraq for 16 months on two different tours, I can confidently say that, if Bill Keller truly believes the above, he is either greatly lacking in knowledge or perspective, is a complete idiot, or is spinning a lie. Terrorists not only react - very evidently - to reports from the world's leading newspapers, they react to work of mouth on the streets and markets of large cities and small tribal communities.

Not only do terrorists react as individuals, but as organizations.
An Al Qaida pamphlet found in Pakistan discusses and discourages the use of cell phones (here). Not long before I left Iraq for the second time, in November of 2005, the Al-Qaeda in Iraq network issued a nation-wide fatwa banning the use of cell phones by members of the organization. They even went so far as to destroy a number of cell phone towers in NW Iraq in an attempt to prevent their members from being able to use cell phones, knowing that U.S. forces could monitor their usage. It is unlikely that Bill Keller's work at the NYT directly contributed to either of those instances, but to suggest that revealing highly classified national security programs in a major world-wide newspaper is harmless is akin to every person in the U.S. believing they shouldn't bother voting because their vote doesn't really matter.

To borrow from one of our Founding Fathers, Keller's final justification provides a perfect illustration of what Thomas Jefferson called "an apathy unfavorable to every hope".

Lastly, Bill Keller claims that this information was published because it was deemed to be in the "public interest". Leaving aside that it is also in the public's interest to have a strong national defense, a robust intelligence capability, and an advantage over those who wish to kill us both at home and abroad....What is the public's interest in having this information, and in what way does it outweigh the other public interests involved?

Is it in the public's interest for anyone - press or not - to reveal to the entire world highly classified, highly effective, perfectly legal national security programs? I think not.

Is it in the public's interest for such programs, if controversial, to be discussed first in the halls of government, before being revealed to every terrorist and criminal in the world? Probably.

Would it be in the public's interest if someone decided that the existence of Bill Keller on this earth were not in the public's interest? Well, its debatable, but to borrow from Mr. Keller, who are we to make such a judgement?

Borrowing from Mr. Keller again, isn't it plausible that the American people already knew - or at the very least suspected - that the U.S. government was doing, or were certainly capable of doing, such things as tracking the international transactions of terrorists? Haven't Hollywood, the Discovery Channel, and The Learning Channel, to name a few, already made it quite evident to the American public that our government is capable of just about anything? And as Mr. Keller freely admits, hasn't the Treasury Dept already hinted at as much?

What then is the public interest in doing no more than going further by revealing specifically classified details of a specifically classied program, even naming the specific banking conglomerates and institutions involved?

Was the public interest not served enough when both the 9/11 Commission recommended, the President and Congress promised, and the Treasury Department confirmed that actions such as the tracking of the financial transactions of terrorists would be pursued? I certainly have never met a single American so naive as to believe our government wasn't engaged in such actions. So was it necessary to give the public, and the terrorists, the finite details?

Thanks for nothing, Bill.

-The Analyst


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