Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I’ve avoided saying anything about the current uproar over the NY Times until now, mostly because I think the whole situation is patently absurd. Every single side of the story is represented by people who are, frankly, completely full of shit. The New York Times is full of shit, their critics are full of shit, and the right wingers calling for treason charges are completely full of shit. Every single facet of this thing just screams hypocrisy on the part of every single person involved.

Let’s start with the NY Times. On September 24, 2001, the Times ran an editorial that called for more aggressive monitoring of the financial transactions of suspected terrorists to bring down their financing network. They began by stating the obvious, that “putting Osama bin Laden and other international terrorists out of business will require more than diplomatic coalitions and military action. Washington and its allies must also disable the financial networks used by terrorists.” 5 years later, they’re breathlessly reporting that – ohmigod! – the government is doing exactly what we demanded they do! They are completely full of shit.

And let’s rid ourselves of the notion that the Times broke some exclusive story through their crack investigative reporting. Is there anyone alive who really didn’t know that the government was tracking the financial transactions of suspected terrorists? For crying out loud, President Bush himself had publicly announced that we were tracking financial transactions and working with banks around the world to shut down the financial network of the terrorists. Later in 2001, the treasury secretary released a public statement announcing:

“[W]e have begun to act – to block assets, to seize books, records and evidence, and to follow audit trails to track terrorist cells poised to do violence to our common interests… We have built an international coalition to deny terrorists access to the world financial system.”

How about Tony Snow’s claim that even though our tracking of financial transactions was well known, “I am absolutely sure they didn’t know about SWIFT?” Bzzzt. Wrong. Even the details about the tracking transactions made through the SWIFT system had long been known publicly. The UN Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Group had posted a report on its website in late 2002 detailing all of that:

The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions.

Wanna know how ridiculous this claim is? SWIFT has its own webpage, where they brag about their cooperation with governments around the world in tracking financial transactions that fund illegal activities:

“SWIFT has a history of cooperating in good faith with authorities such as central banks, treasury departments, law enforcement agencies and appropriate international organisations, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in their efforts to combat abuse of the financial system for illegal activities.”

The FATF has their own webpage too, which announces exactly what they do:

The work of the FATF focuses on three principal areas: (1) Setting standards for national anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing programmes; (2) evaluating the degree to which countries have implemented measures that meet those standards; and (3) identifying and studying money laundering and terrorist financing methods and trends.

In fact, all international wire transfers require the filling out of a form that says, “With respect to payment orders executed through SWIFT, the SWIFT operating rules shall govern the payment orders.” This “secret” program reminds me of Otto in A Fish Called Wanda ad libbing his reason for being in Archie’s house by telling them that he’s with the CIA and he just wanted them to know that they’re interrogating a prisoner in a safe house nearby.

In fact, not only was the information in that story well known already to anyone who paid attention, it was already vastly out of date. Ron Suskind’s new book cites adminstration officials telling him that such operations stopped paying dividends over 3 years ago because the terrorists knew they were being tracked that way and had already changed their means of moving money around to use human couriers. So not only was it well known, it was already outdated years before the Times reported it.

The only thing that wasn’t already known in the NY Times story is that the administration does not request individual warrants when seeking that information but instead relies on broad administrative subpeonas:

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.

That access to large amounts of confidential data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues.

“The capability here is awesome or, depending on where you’re sitting, troubling,” said one former senior counterterrorism official who considers the program valuable. While tight controls are in place, the official added, “the potential for abuse is enormous.”

That is the only thing in the Times article that wasn’t already publicly known. So where is all this screaming from the right coming from? Pure political opportunism. One of the most basic strategies of the right over the last few decades is to demonize the press as much as possible so that anything negative reported about them gets dismissed out of hand by their followers – after all, whatever is said comes from the “liberal media” and therefore can’t be trusted. But notice that all the ire is focused on the NY Times and not, for instance, on the Wall Street Journal, which had also reported the same thing:

“[T]he U.S. Treasury Department has been secretly tracking suspected terrorist financing through a far-reaching program that gives it access to records from the network that handles nearly all international financial transfers.”

Editor and Publisher questioned Tony Snow about this, asking why the administration was bashing the Times but not the Wall Street Journal.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told E&P today that The New York Times deserves the brunt of criticism for disclosure of a secret bank records monitoring program, even though two other newspapers — The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times — reported the same story at almost the same time…

Snow, along with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, on Monday criticized the Times for publishing the story despite administration efforts to halt it. He told E&P that the criticism was directed at the New York paper because it “was way ahead of the other two and started [reporting on the story] much earlier. The other two were playing catch up.”

Yet we’ve not heard anyone call for treason charges against the Wall Street Journal. And the Journal editors have been keeping their distance from the story, as one might expect. Glenn Greenwald had it exactly right when he wrote, “The media is guilty of publishing stories which might harm the political interests of the President, not which could harm the national security of the United States. But Bush supporters recognize no such distinction.” The Times’ breathless “exclusive” was nothing of the sort. It was old, outdated information about a program everyone knew existed years ago. And those screaming for their heads don’t give a damn about our national security, they are only falling into lockstep with the latest set of talking points from the administration. Both sides, in short, are full of shit.


  1. #1 kehrsam
    June 29, 2006

    I just wrote about the creation of political theater on the flag-burning thread, and this is the perfect example: Where is the news interest in a story about a known program that has ceased having relevance to the GWOT? Hell, monitoring this type of tranaction was part of W’s stump speech in 2004. Nothing but theater. And Fox News and talk radio are eating it up (and much of the liberal blogosphere as well). Wow. I guess we really are that stupid.

  2. #2 Evil Bender
    June 29, 2006

    I agree with you on most of this, but while I’m not much of a fan of the Times of late, I think that the reaction of the right justifies much of the story’s existence. The White House is fighting so hard on this one because they don’t want to face oversights for their programs, or even have people know enough about the program to question what oversight is necessary. So a discussion of whether the administration’s tacics are appropriate would be worthwhile, which is no doubt why the right is obscuring the issue.

  3. #3 justawriter
    June 29, 2006

    Well, the article did mention, albeit nearly parenthetically, the administration’s many public references to the program when it talked about the its effort to block the publication of the article. Personally, I found the news that SWIFT wanted to end the program in 2003 to be newsworthy and the fact that it demanded (and received!) veto power over any searches it deemed inappropriate as a compromise to be significant and newsworthy. That one person was dismissed from the program for doing improper searches is also important, I think. I don’t know if this information was available before the article appeared, but I didn’t know about it.

    I didn’t see anything alarmist in the article that would rate the Times being “full of shit”. On the whole, it came across to me as more like “hey, these clowns finally did something that actually worked.” I think it was the attempt to prevent publication of the article that raised the issue above the “eh, so what?” level.

  4. #4 xebecs
    June 29, 2006

    Somehow I assumed that the point of the NYT story was that this was another example of an anti-Terror tool which was being used too broadly and without enough oversight. If this is the case, I think this would undermine claims that the NYT is full of shit on this issue. But perhaps I am mistaken in my assumption… Anyone?

  5. #5 3.14159
    June 29, 2006

    Look, you obviously don’t know anything about intelligence work. It’s an X-K-red-27 technique.

  6. #6 Andrew_Wyatt
    June 30, 2006

    Kevin Drum, highlighting a long Crooked Timber post on the topic, recently pointed out that the Times gave short shrift to the most legally troubling dimension to the story: It’s not that the Treasury Department violated U.S. Law, it’s that SWIFT likely violated numerous European laws.

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