Times reveals classified government program
June 23, 2006
The New York Times today published a five page article detailing a secret program instituted by the U.S. government in the days following 9/11 that allows intelligence agencies access to financial data about transactions involving millions of Americans via Swift, an international database of banking records. The program, ostensibly used to track and eliminate terrorism, will surely create a storm of controversy in the coming days and weeks.
The article was written by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, the same two reporters who broke the NSA wiretapping story last December and were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. The legal issues surrounding the program are complex, but the Bush administration has vehemently asserted that it has acted in accordance with both “the spirit and the letter” of applicable privacy laws and that the program is “an effective weapon in the war on terror”; the response to the article is also chronicled in two articles published by the Times later in the day.
To me, this sort of thing sobering, yet unsurprising given the Bush administration’s broad interpretation of its legal authority granted by Congress after 9/11 and especially on remembering the remarkably similar case of the NSA wiretapping. I’m not overly concerned about abuse of the information obtained throught the program; rather, I am disturbed by what appears to be yet another instance of the dangers posed by the war on terror being used to justify potentially illegal activity which is then kept secret from the American people.
Clearly, the administration believes the program is legal, but it is unclear how effectively and impartially the Justice Department has evaluated the program’s legal status. The article reveals that the Times was indeed asked not to publish the article for fear of giving terrorists “another piece of the puzzle of how we are fighting them.” I applaud Executive Editor Bill Keller’s decision not to back down in the face of such a request; the “extraordinary access” afforded to government officials by the program is, as he notes, “a matter of public interest.”
If there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether the White House overstepped its bounds in authorizing this, we have a right to know about it. Otherwise, it amounts to a grand deception of the American people regarding the lengths to which this adminstration is willing to go in the name of national security.
Update 6/25: Bill Keller has posted a letter explaining the Times‘ position and its decision to publish the article against the wishes of the White House. He reveals that the decision came only after “weeks of discussion between Administration officials and The Times.” According to him, the primary argument that the Administration advanced against publishing it was that its revelation would cause Swift and its affiliated bankers to stop cooperating with the government, a line of reasoning that The Times found “puzzling” and, ultimately, unconvincing. Again, I would like to thank The Times for bringing such timely and important information to the attention of the public; I firmly believe it was done in accordance with the paper’s responsibility to report even “unpleasant and complicated” news.
Update 6/26: More White House and Republican response arrived today, with President Bush criticizing the disclosure as “disgraceful” and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) going so far as to call it “treasonous” and asking for a criminal investigation into The Times‘ actions. During today’s press briefing, Tony Snow accused The Times of taking a “highly unusual departure” from what he called “long standing traditions” of media keeping government actions secret during wartime. He later portrayed it as a lapse in “editorial judgment” that disregarded the program’s legality and effectiveness in favor of the public’s “right to know.” He also dodged questions about a potential leak investigation, as was conducted in the wake of the NSA wiretapping scandal (also initiated by The Times), referring reporters to the Justice Department. It’s really difficult for me to be sympathetic to the White House’s position here. As has been discussed, terrorists have little alternative to using the international banking system for financial transactions, and disclosure of the program does little to affect that. Considering that along with the still-unconvincing legal justification provided by the White House–they claim that it falls under the sweeping powers granted to the President after 9/11 to combat terrorism–I think the benefits of an open debate on the issue outweigh the concerns expressed by the White House.
–D. S. W.