Call it the Washington Beltway's "Axis of Abuse": irresponsible reporters and editors collaborating with agenda-ed, unnamed "leakers."
The exposure of a legal and productive counter-terror intelligence operation on the front page of the June 23 edition of The New York Times is the latest abusive and dangerous example of this Beltway hustle. "Leakers" in this particular case is too weak a term -- exposing the finance-monitoring program amounts to spying for terrorists.
The New York Times acknowledged the program it exposed was limited "to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to al-Qaida by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry ..." The paper also admitted these intelligence operations helped nab al-Qaida's Southeast Asia terror kingpin, Hambali, the man who planned the 2002 Bali massacre.
The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall St Journal also published the story -- "me, too" popinjays after The New York Times blabbed.
International bank records are fair game for intel teams attempting to track terrorist finances and contacts. A tainted religious mania propels al-Qaida's killers, but money fuels their operations, buys their bombs and secures their safehouses. The 9-11 commission said surveillance of terrorist financing was critical to stopping terrorist attacks and destroying terrorist organizations.
So why expose this fruitful, legal operation? Why expose necessary secrets that protect American lives?
The simple power to do it is one explanation -- and that's the power of a bully. Add arrogance and greed, and we have a "most likely" explanation. The New York Times obviously believes it can expose intelligence secrets and pay no penalty. Hot stories sell newspapers. This "revelation," however, is manufactured sensationalism. The Times has demonstrated it will manufacture scandal no matter the national cost.
There is much still to admire at The New York Times -- correction, there are admirably talented people working at the Times producing world-class work (John Burns is the world's top foreign correspondent). However, editorial responsibility and judgment are seriously lacking. The Times' editors appear to be wedded to the two "press templates" of Vietnam and Watergate. "Get Bush" is their current "Get Nixon."
What should be done? Loose lips have already sunk this ship -- the program is compromised. Al-Qaida's suicide warriors aren't the smartest of enemies, but many of its global financiers are sharp and canny -- they will modify their m.o., forcing U.S. intelligence agencies to jury-rig new programs.
The Senate Committee on Intelligence has asked the director of national intelligence to assess the damage wrought by "unauthorized disclosure." The Senate should weigh the DNI's assessment and follow up with hearings.
The Bush administration should prosecute the leakers. I don't think the administration has the spine, however. It could barely prosecute former Clinton administration National Security Adviser Sandy Berger for abuse of classified material that would have put a soldier in jail. The president's personal denunciation of the exposure is a good sign. I hope he stays mad and proves me wrong.
On June 25, New York Times Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller tried to defend his decision. His public letter included arrogant snark directed at "conservative bloggers" and radio shows.
Keller, however, committed a "deeper error," according to University of Tennessee constitutional law professor Glenn Reynolds.
Reynolds wrote at his influential Website, Instapundit.com, that Keller mischaracterized freedom of the press "as an institutional privilege." It's not. "The founders gave freedom of the press to the people," Reynolds observed. "They didn't give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of constitutional high priest, when in fact the "freedom of the press" the Framers described was also called "freedom in the use of the press."
The Constitution gives people the right to bear arms. It doesn't give them the right to commit murder.
Every editor wants a headline, but some headlines damage our government's Job One: national security. I suspect Bill Keller doesn't really believe we are fighting a for-real global counter-terror war. The pleasant semblance of peace in the Hamptons and in Hollywood allows him to trivialize the threat.
At one time there was hole in south Manhattan the New York Times' elitist trivializers could not ignore.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and TCS contributing writer.