Sunday, July 02, 2006

The New York Times v. U.S. Gov't: What is a Secret and Who Should Keep Them

Is a secret still a secret if everyone knows the secret, but never mentions the secret? That is a question I have pondered for many years and have yet to decide. That is precisely the question being asked by George W. Bush, Bill Keller, the TIMES newspapers, the media in general, and the American people.

The New York Times' executive editor Bill Keller told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday morning:
"[p]ublished reports that the U.S. was monitoring international banking transactions were not news to the terrorists who were its target because the Bush Administration had already "talked openly" about the effort.

"I don't think the threshold test of whether you write about how the government is waging the war on terror is whether they've done something that's blatantly illegal or outrageous," Keller said. "I think you probably would like to know what they're doing that's successful as well."
Last week, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and several other newspapers (and blogs) "revealed" that the White House was tracking terrorist-related financial transactions in the international banking system called SWIFT. These entities have been criticized for disclosing "secret" operations meant to nix terror plots and activities.

President Bush said the latest revelation was "disgraceful" and did "great harm" to the country. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, reiterated his view on CNN's Sunday "Late Edition" that The New York Times should be prosecuted persuant to the 1917 Espionage Act (read the pdf - it's only four short pages) for continuously disclosing classified information.

But, was the information really as classified or secret as the President and the Administration claim? Is Bill Keller right in saying the terrorists already knew (or at least, could have known) about the financial counterterror operations?

The answer to the first question, I must conclude is NO. Neither the information, nor the operation were secret, though they may have been classified as secret. Though it can't be known with certainty, Bill Keller is probably right that the bad guys knew about the programs and opertaions or could have known. It was easy enough me to find out. The Bush Administration announced the program and plans when President Bush signed Executive Order 13224 on September 23, 2001. The E.O. was distributed to the media as a Fact Sheet from the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Washington, D.C., December 20, 2002.

In fact, the information is available from the White House website under Homeland Security. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find this reference paragraph:

Cracking Down On Terrorist Financing With Our International Partners. Over 400 individuals and entities have been designated pursuant to Executive Order 13224, resulting in nearly $150 million in frozen assets and millions more blocked in transit or seized at borders. We have built an international coalition that is applying more rigorous financial standards and controls to help prevent terrorists' use of the international financial system. Specifically, we have established with the Government of Saudi Arabia a Joint Task Force on Terrorism Finance that serves as a coordinating mechanism to cooperate on important terrorism-financing investigations.
As much as I would like to see the scoundrels at the TIMES prosecuted, found guilty, and put away for a very long time (only because we can't hang people anymore), I'm afraid nothing can be done. I do not think for one minute the public accessibility of the information exonerates Bill Keller, the NY and LA TIMES, and anyone else involved in the decision to publish. It may be doubtful the terrorists actually take the time or make the effort to access the White House website to find obscure information thereby learning details of programs better left concealed, it is neither excuse, nor valid reason to make that knowledge generally known. Maybe they do visit the White House website regularly, but that doesn't mean anyone ostensibly on our side should make it easy to find information that can be exploited to kill and maim innocent civilians or uniformed service members. Simply, it just isn't right.

Whether the actions taken by the media members were right or wrong, legal or illegal, righteouos or morally repugnant, all the information was and still is, in fact, in the public domain and was put there by the very government that is now protesting the public disclosure of that information. Publically held secrets do not remain secret for long in a society that values a free press and an enlightened electorate. If the government wants secrets to remain so, then the government should not publish their existence in the first place.

The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.


City Troll said...

I want to Hang them anyway....

Happy Fourth Indy...

bernie said...

I have to disagree. Here's the difference: all bank robbers know that you should wear a mask and gloves to avoid exposing your image and fingerprints for later detection. But suppose one went into a bank to rob it and noticed a HUGE Sign that said "Attn Bank Robbers - Just in case you missed this - Please check again to make sure your face is covered with a mask and you are wearing gloves"

Of course this info is freely available anywhere as a caution for all bank robbers. But is it in the public interest to blast it on the front page or entrance to a bank as a reminder to those few terrorists who might have missed delving into the congressinal record?

I think I will blog about it.

Indigo Red said...

Actually, Bernie, we do not disagree one whit. In the conclusion of my post I state the case as you have, just because it's publically available information does require it be bandied about willy-nilly.

I might also add, that since the data was so freely available and had been for several years it was not news. We all had known about the situation and had accepted the ramifications and possble consequences of the program.

What I find fascinating is that people have got their panties in a twist despite the fact the government has been doing nearly the same thing for all transactions of $10,000 or more for years in the War on Drugs with nary a beep. And now Google wants to track our credit card usage whether we use Google services or not and damned few are pantie twisting about that.

My banking, telephonic, and library records have long been open to government scrutiny and I've yet to spend one night in goal or Star Chamber. I truly do believe I have more to fear from Mr. Gore's Global Warming
than Pres. Bushes Global War.

bernie said...

As I warned you, I did finally blog about it :

Rereading you more carefully I see our positions are not off.

As for not mentionng secrets when everyone knows the secret: we do it all the time. At some point children know there's no Santa, but only a heartless moron would yell out "There's no Santa" at a Christmas Party filled with children. Yes - we all know there's no Santa. That doesn't mean you can blurt it out. Have some decency NYTimes.

Indigo Red said...

I tried that once and learned my lesson real quick. When Santa whacks you up the side of your head with his bag of presents, you figure the score quick. I'm not doing that again.