Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Absent Oversight, a Free Press

Bad, bad New York Times. As a result of its decision to publish a certain story on Washington's "war on terror," the reputable newspaper has had a finger-pointing U.S. President Bush accusing it of making the effort "more difficult." Vice-President Cheney, ever a friend of the free press, made similar accusations, pointing out that despite being told by high authorities not to disclose certain programs, the New York Times had gone ahead and had thereby caused "damage." The White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, went even further, saying that the paper had betrayed the long tradition of maintaining state secrets during wartime (not to mention his making an invidious and atrociously misleading hint that the newspaper should feel responsible if people died as a result of its decision to publish the article).

The most recent incident involves a story published by the newspaper on the CIA's gaining access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift, a Belgium-based international financial database that routes about 11 million transactions daily among 7,800 banks in 200 countries. Now, in and of itself, this kind of access isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. If the intrusiveness is proportional to the benefits of the information obtained, and if this activity truly allows the authorities to obtain intelligence on the movement of terrorism-related money, than it could be argued that those measures are acceptable.

The heart of the matter, however, lies in the oversight, in the evaluation of the benefits versus the disadvantages of states engaging in activities of this type. And that's where the real problem exists and why newspapers like the New York Times are so important. Sad to say, the current oversight of intelligence matters around the world is risible, toothless, and at best a cosmetic contrivance to assuage the fears of the citizens. The truth is, there exists no serious and effective oversight of intelligence activities in the post-9/11 world; such bodies are under-staffed, under-funded, and treated with contempt and circumspection by the very agencies whose activities they are, by mandate, charged with overseeing.

The only true line of defense against abuse of power, therefore, lies in the press, and it is consequently no wonder that governments, both in the U.S. and in Canada (and elsewhere, obviously), will do their utmost to smother the information. That is why Ottawa imposed a publication ban on the prosecution of the Group of 17 (see "Walls," June 13, 2006), and why Bush et al are currently annoyed with the New York Times.

But where did the Times get its information on the program from? After all, details of such activities are classified, which means that (absent fabrication) there's only one possible source—the leak. The next logical question we should ask ourselves, then, is why someone, or a group of people, feel the need to hand over the classified information, at great personal risk, to the press. Again, the answer lies in oversight, or lack thereof. Someone, somewhere, had second thoughts or doubts about the legality of what the CIA was doing (as do some Democrats, by the way), and seeing that the existing institutions were unable to put a check on that, the only other option was to leak the story.

The language used by Bush, Cheney and Snow in particular is revealing. The Press Secretary states that we are in wartime and that as such military secrets should be kept close to the chest. As I wrote a few days ago (see Friday June 23, 2006), there is no such thing as a "war on terror," as terrorism is but a technique, a genie out of the bottle, existing out there, as a concept. By making war a perpetual one—and by inheritance Bush's is one, for there is no defeating a concept—the press now finds itself under the obligation not to write on such matters, ever. Moreover, as intelligence services have a tendency to classify everything and to over-classify everything classified, this would entail that the press is now in the unfavorable position of not being able to write anything about ongoing intelligence-gathering programs. This, for obvious reasons, is utterly unacceptable. Open societies should not—cannot—agree to an open-ended war that gives undue permissions to those in power, all in the name of so-called security.

The New York Times' dedication to exposing the activities of the United States government is commendable, and the editors should be applauded for standing firm on their decision to go ahead and publish—even if they risk, as has already been suggested, prosecution from the U.S. government. Sadly, as long as governments continue to regard oversight of intelligence matters as a nuisance rather than an important component of the activity, the only means by which abuses can be prevented, checked and exposed will lie in the free press.


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