NYT Wrecks Another Terrorist-Surveillance Program

June 23rd, 2006 9:42 AM

As Alexandra von Maltzan noted earlier this morning, the Times’ notorious tag team of intelligence reporters, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, again reveal details of a terrorist surveillance program while ignoring the concerns and personal pleas from the White House. 

The same team that handled the NSA “domestic spying” scoop has Friday’s lead story on another classified surveillance program, this one involving international bank transfers (“Bank Data Sifted In Secret By U.S. To Block Terror”), which may well sabotage the usefulness of the program.

“Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.

“The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.

Viewed by the Bush administration as a vital tool, the program has played a hidden role in domestic and foreign terrorism investigations since 2001 and helped in the capture of the most wanted Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia, the officials said.”

If there’s anything illegal about the program, the Times gives no indication of it, but simply tries to raise doubts, speaking of concerns about “gray areas” and “appropriateness” and noting darkly:

“The program, however, is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans' financial records. 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 Times itself reports that with Friday’s big story, it has once again snubbed a Bush administration request not to publish an article on a terror-surveillance program:

“The Bush administration has made no secret of its campaign to disrupt terrorist financing, and President Bush, Treasury officials and others have spoken publicly about those efforts. Administration officials, however, asked The New York Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness. They also enlisted several current and former officials, both Democrat and Republican, to vouch for its value.

“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.’”

The Times itself quotes Dana Perino, White House deputy press secretary: “The president is concerned that once again The New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is working to protect our citizens.”

That apparently doesn’t bother the paper very much.

In the 37th paragraph, Lichtblau and Risen finally get into the program’s successes, which might be curtailed because of the report from the Times:

“The Swift data has provided clues to money trails and ties between possible terrorists and groups financing them, the officials said. In some instances, they said, the program has pointed them to new suspects, while in others it has buttressed cases already under investigation.

Among the successes was the capture of a Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, believed to be the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of a Bali resort, several officials said. The Swift data identified a previously unknown figure in Southeast Asia who had financial dealings with a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda; that link helped locate Hambali in Thailand in 2003, they said.

In the United States, the program has provided financial data in investigations into possible domestic terrorist cells as well as inquiries of Islamic charities with suspected of having links to extremists, the officials said.”

The Times soon returns to relaying fuzzy concerns about the propriety, if not the legality, of the surveillance of international wire transactions.

Stephen Spruiell hits hard at the Times’ irresponsible Pulitzer-sniffing:

“According to the NYT's own reporting, the program is legal. The program is helping us catch terrorists. The administration has briefed the appropriate members of Congress. The program has built-in safeguards to prevent abuse. And yet, with nothing more than a vague appeal to the ‘public interest’ (which apparently is not outweighed in this case by the public's interest in apprehending terrorists), the NYT disregards all that and publishes intimate, classified details about the program. Keller and his team really do believe they are above the law. When it comes to national security, it isn't the government that should decide when secrecy is essential to a program's effectiveness. It is the New York Times. National security be damned. There are Pulitzers to be won.”

And Bryan at Hot Air says:

“Call me crazy, but since the program is legal and since the administration argues it has helped stop terror attacks, isn’t the weight of the public’s interest in this story on the side of keeping the program under wraps so that it can continue to stop terrorists?”

Meanwhile, Michelle http://michellemalkin.com/archives/005428.htm Malkin is collecting outraged letters to the editor the Times won’t find fit to print.