Friday, June 30, 2006

Times-bashing as a political tool

The Bush administration's war against the evildoers who are out to endanger America -- I am referring, of course, to The New York Times -- is proceeding according to plan.

The conservative Republican base, which badly needed to be fired up, is now suitably galvanized against its perceived common enemy. The conservative commentariat is also playing its accustomed role, ratcheting up the president's rhetoric about five notches. And the Republicans in Congress, many of them nervous about the '06 elections, are back on the attack, challenging the Democrats to accept the GOP's narrow framing of the issue and either stand up for The Times, or stand up for national security.

Because this is really about politics.

This war on The Times was ostensibly triggered by the newspaper's decision a week ago to run its story about the secret Bush program that sifts international bank data in order to pinpoint terrorist money. The story detailed some of the relations between U.S. security officials and the banking consortium known as SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) , but the main point was that the scrutiny of people's financial records is proceeding without specific congressional approval, or formal authorization, or court warrants, or subpoenas targeting specific transactions -- or any indication whether this one-time emergency plan has in fact become permanent.

Bush assailed The Times' decision to publish as a "disgrace," and the conservative commentariat piled on, with first prize for vitriol arguably being awarded to San Francisco talk show host Melanie Morgan, who said that Times editor Bill Keller should "be sent to the gas chamber" for treason. Second prize -- and the competition is stiff -- arguably goes to blogger Scott Johnson (a Minneapolis attorney, no less) who warned that The Times might well continue to "betray the national security of the United States" unless "an enraged citizenry" decides "to take the law into its own hands," a remark that can be read as an incitement to violence.

Surely, some of The Times' critics are sincerely enraged about the SWIFT story. But it's also a fact that, for the Bush administration, The Times is a perfect political pinata. The conservative base hates The Times because it's eastern, it's "New York" (and all that implies), it runs liberal editorials, it has a lot of Ivy Leaguers. The Bush team knows this, which is why it has been slamming The Times for years. Bush specifically skewered The Times in the midst of his 2004 convention speech. Dick Cheney booted The Times off his campaign plane that year. Bush and Cheney, standing at an open mike in 2000, singled out a Times reporter by calling him "a major league (orifice)."

So, whacking The Times is good politics in an election year. What better way to galvanize a conservative base that has been disaffected by (among other things) Iraq, the Dubai ports deal, and runaway federal spending? What better way to calm the nerves of vulnerable Republican incumbents than to unite them in the cause of Times-bashing (as GOP operative Joe Gaylord told The Washington Post the other day, "the guys who are up this fall are scared as hell”) ?

This is not conjecture on my part; Bush's followers talk openly about Times-bashing as a tactic. Commentator Jack Kelly thinks it'd be great for the base if Bush prosecuted The Times for publishing the SWIFT story: "In picking a fight with journalists over leaks, President Bush would be picking on one of the few groups in America less popular than he is, on the issue where he is on the firmest ground with the public. Media uproar over prosecution of the Times would drown out other issues where the president is on shakier ground. This is a fight to be welcomed, not avoided."

The press is less popular than the president? Actually, Gallup did a poll this month, asking Americans how they currently feel about their institutions. 70 percent said they favorably viewed newspapers "a great deal," "quite a lot" or "some." Fifty-eight percent felt that way about the presidency. But never mind all that. Here's the main problem with the Times-bashing strategy: The core argument -- that the SWIFT story undercut national security by telling terrorists that we're trying to track their money -- is not nearly as airtight as the conservatives think it is. Consider...

1. The Bush administration has tipped off the terrorists, almost since day one, that we were going to track their money. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, less than a month after 9/11, said, "The Treasury Department will use every tool we have at our disposal to shut down terrorist fundraising and dismantle their organizations one dollar at a time." Bush, campaigning for re-election on April 19, 2004, said, "See, part of the way to make sure that we catch terrorists is we chase money trails."

2. Press secretary Tony Snow said the other day that "I am absolutely sure (the terrorists) didn't know about SWIFT" prior to The Times' story, but it's hard to see how he can be so certain, given the fact that (as The Washington Posts Dan Froomkin discovered) SWIFT already has its own website -- with information about how it works with law enforcement "to combat abuse of the financial system for illegal activities."

3. The United Nations published a report four years ago that discussed SWIFT. Former State Department official Victor Comraes, on his Counterterrorism blog, talks about how terrorism financing experts have known about SWIFT since 2002, part because of that report -- which is still available on the UN website for anyone to read. One key passage: "The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions."

4. Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, spoke at length and in public nearly two years ago about government efforts to track terrorist money through the international banking system. He did this in open testimony on Sept. 22, 2004, before the House Financial Service Committee, chaired by Michael Oxley of Ohio.

What's noteworthy, this week, is that Oxley sponsored the resolution condemning the SWIFT story for supposedly making it tougher to track terrorist money -- yet, in 2004, Oxley was told by Levey that the terrorists weren't much interested anymore in moving money through the legal financial sector, because of all the heightened scrutiny. Levey testified: "The movement of money via cash couriers is now one of the principle methods that terrorists use to move funds."

5. Some House Republicans, during a floor debate yesterday, pointed out that 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean had urged that The Times not publish the SWIFT story. That is absolutely true. But Kean's position is more nuanced than that. The other day, in an interview with liberal blogger Greg Sargent, the ex-Republican New Jersey governor stated that SWIFT "gave us a chance to disrupt terrorist plots. But I would not go as far as to say (that The Times' story) put American lives at risk." He also said that The Times didn't commit a criminal act, that it therefore should not be prosecuted, and that the Bush administration's rhetoric has been "over the top."

6. Roger Cressey, a counterterrorism official who worked in Bush's National Security Council until 2003, has been telling reporters all week that the SWIFT story didn't tell terrorists anything they didn't already know or assume. On today's Times op-ed page, he wrote, "They (Bush officials) want the public to believe that it had not already occurred to every terrorist on the planet that his telephone was probably monitored and his international bank transfers (were) subject to scrutiny. How gullible does the administration take the American citizenry to be?"

Indeed, will most Americans view this Times-bashing as a defensible response to a substantive issue -- or as a political strategy aimed at ginning up the GOP base? On the House floor yesterday, Oxley denied that it was the latter, saying, "This is serious business, this isn't politics."

Oh really? Then why did I receive an email today from the Republican National Committee -- the party's political arm, financed by political contributions -- declaring that "House Democrats Put The New York Times First, National Security Second"?

And this argument, which appeared the other day in the Washington Times, serves to rebut the Bush administration strategy: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people would soon wither if the press were deterred from publishing information that the president claimed might weaken national security. Perpetually secret government and democracy are incompatible." So spoke conservative Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general under Ronald Reagan.