TCS Daily

Why Would the Times Publish This Story?

By Frederick Turner - June 6, 2005 12:00 AM

A recent article by Scott Shane, Stephen Grey and Margot Williams in the New York Times revealed the use of aircraft charter companies by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, together with specific aircraft markings, bases, routes, and other information helpful to identification of such flights.

Let us look at the possible motivations for the researching and reporting of this journalistically very competent article. The first would be that there is nothing special about such a story -- it is merely an interesting set of facts, part of life's rich pageant of happenings, and people might be interested in reading the story. If this is the case, and the story has no more significance than, say, the choice of Ford for New York's fleet of animal control vehicles or the contracting of SAGA to cater food at the State Department, then why was it given major billing on the front page? And why, further, would experienced reporters and editors not see that the story might have other effects? -- effects possibly equivalent to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater or, more to the point, blowing the cover of an intelligence agent operating in dangerous territory?

A second motive is that the exposé is news that a democratic free republic needs to make up its mind about public policy. However, the fact that the US uses private companies to conduct intelligence business is already well known; an opinion piece that cited this fact could have made this point without objection. A news article without specifics of aircraft markings, routes, and marques could have received general acceptance, if it had some point to make about some other aspect of the relationship between government and private agencies -- for instance, it could have researched the corruption of the private sector by secret government money, or the risk to civilian contractors, or some possible deception of the general public. But since the general public would have been very surprised if US intelligence agencies did not secretly purchase the services of private companies -- and indeed would be appalled by their incompetence if they did not -- this motivation must be ruled out.

A third motivation could have been that the article "outed" some violation of US law that the general public ought to know about and call to redress. No contravention of the law of the land is claimed to have taken place, so there is no justification for this hypothesis.

A fourth motivation could be that the patriotic authors believed that the US is making a huge mistake in the current war, and any hindrance to its use of secret intelligence and covert action will help prevent the continuance of this mistake. Two problems present themselves here. The first is that if this were the motivation, their proper role would be to say so in an opinion piece, in which citation of specific secrets would be unnecessary, since America already accepts and has voted for covert services that employ private companies. Regardless of the possibility that it was an error to enter the war in the first place, there is a large consensus among both conservatives and liberals that as of now it is in our and the world's interest that the evolution of Iraq and Afghanistan toward democratic rule and peace should be defended and allowed to establish legitimate government. Anyone opposing this consensus should say so publicly, and on the level of public debate, not on the level of disclosing secret or even hard-to-assemble security information. The second problem is that the U.S. is a democracy that has recently voted for those who would continue its current foreign and military policy. Given the existing state of general knowledge about spycraft, the only use or need for the specific information would be the convenience of the enemy. Though of course it is entirely in the spirit and letter of our constitution to publicly oppose such policies, it is also treason, morally even if not prosecuted, to practically assist the enemy in a war.

The wisdom of the Guantanamo Bay detentions and the use of foreign interrogators is indeed a proper subject of debate. But there is only one legitimate way of opposing those practices, and that is by reasoned argument in the public arena. To attempt to sabotage them by providing information to the enemy is itself a violation of the nation's democratic principles, an attempt not to persuade the people but to override their decisions by the use of foreign forces.

A fifth possible motivation is that the authors of the article believed that the overthrow of the current legal government of the USA was more important than success in the war. Here there may be a moral defense, but not a legal one -- if they are sincere they should welcome and accept with a clear conscience the accusation of treason, declare their separation from the constitution of the USA, and accept whatever punishment the law requires for treason. If the government does not for political or merciful reasons prosecute them, it is their moral duty in good faith to renounce their own citizenship and seek asylum elsewhere.

A sixth motivation is that the "exposé" had the hallmarks in recent practice of a Pulitzer Prize -- indeed, the piece was well researched and well presented. If this were the motivation -- surely the least creditable of all -- then the First Amendment would protect the authors from any criminal charge, though they might well be liable to civil charges on the basis of tort.

A close friend of mine, who is an intelligence specialist in the US Army, departs soon for Iraq. It is quite clear to me that the New York Times article has increased by some significant amount the risk to his life. The forces lethally opposed to the USA are currently under great pressure, perhaps stretched in their own intelligence-gathering mission, and may well find the specifics of the article highly valuable in targeting their efforts. Even if the intelligence services change their contractors and their general pattern of interaction with civilian business, these measures will take time and incur other, unknown risks.

If my friend dies in his tour of duty I shall be thinking very specifically about Mr. Scott, Mr. Grey, and Ms. Williams. Quite likely they would have had nothing particularly to do with this misfortune. However, human nature being what it is, I know that I would not be able to exclude them from my meditations. If the authors were just publishing their article to get a chance at a Pulitzer, I really have no moral quarrel with them at all, any more than I would have with a crocodile that eats a child or a raccoon that raids my larder. However, if they do have a moral identity as human beings, they should know that, if a certain civilian plane comes down over an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and all the US personnel aboard are killed, there is one compatriot who will regard them as murderers. May they think of this as they look in the mirror.

Frederick Turner, a TCS contributing editor, is the author of The Culture of Hope.


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