Secret, Not Secret; Secret, Not Secret

The New York Times undertook to blow what it called, in its headline, the “secret” international terrorist financing tracking program, for reasons that it never has been able to explain. Initially, there was no doubt about the fact that the Times was exposing a secret; reporter Eric Lichtblau used that word to describe the SWIFT program something like twelve times in the body of the Times’ article. But when the Times unexpectedly found itself under heavy criticism for damaging national security, it took the nearest port in a storm, and claimed that the SWIFT program wasn’t a secret after all. Everyone knew about it! Which, of course, left people scratching their heads over the story’s page one, above the fold placement.

It turns out, though, that there was at least one guy who didn’t know about the SWIFT program–Eric Lichtblau. In November 2005, as noted this morning by Villainous Company, Lichtblau himself authored an article in the Times titled, “U.S. Lacks Strategy to Curb Terror Funds.” In that article, Lichtblau, obviously unaware of the SWIFT program, wrote that progress in identifying sources of terrorist funding had been poor, and that the administration:

is now developing a program to gain access to and track potentially hundreds of millions of international bank transfers into the United States.

But experts in the field say the results have been spotty, with few clear dents in Al Qaeda’s ability to move money and finance terrorist attacks.

Apparently those “experts in the field” didn’t know about the SWIFT program either, even though it had been going on for years, as Lichtblau later reported, nor did they evidently know about its role in capturing the most wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia, Hambali.

So much for the “everybody knew about it” defense. Note, too, what it says about the editorial policies of the Times: if the administration allegedly lacks a strategy, it should be criticized for that. If it turns out that it had a strategy all along, and the strategy was a successful one, then the administration should be criticized for keeping it a secret.

If Lichtblau had an ounce of integrity or self-respect, he would resign in disgrace, along with Bill Keller and Pinch Sulzberger.

Via Blog of the Week Patterico’s Pontifications.

UPDATE: The report that was the basis for Lichtblau’s November 2005 article, by the Government Accountability Office, can be accessed here. The report is mind-numbingly bureaucratic. It is also a bit schizophrenic. At various points, it acknowledges the broad charge that it received from Congress; for example, at pages 1-2, the cover letter addressed to three Senators:

You asked us to address specific U.S. efforts to combat terrorist financing abroad as a follow-up to our previous work on the nature and extent of terrorists’ use of alternative financing mechanisms. In this report, we (1) provide an overview of U.S. government efforts to combat terrorist financing abroad and (2) examine U.S. government efforts to coordinate the delivery of training and technical assistance to vulnerable countries.

Point 1 is of course very broad, and would include the SWIFT program if GAO knew about it. In fact, the GAO report takes only an occasional pass at broad issues relating to the government’s efforts to track terrorist financing. See, for example, page 13, part of a section titled “U.S. Government Agencies Conduct Intelligence and Law Enforcement Activities Across Borders”:

The U.S. strategy to combat terrorist financing abroad includes law enforcement techniques and intelligence operations aimed at identifying criminals and terrorist financiers and their networks across borders in order to disrupt and dismantle their organizations. Such efforts include intelligence gathering, investigations, diplomatic actions, sharing information and evidence, apprehending suspects, criminal prosecutions, asset forfeiture, and other actions designed to identify and disrupt the flow of terrorist financing.

This is a classically meaningless bureaucratic laundry list. GAO’s report gives no indication that its writers knew anything about the SWIFT program, which turned out to be the centerpiece of our efforts to “Conduct intelligence and law enforcement activities across borders.” In Appendix II, GAO purports to list the federal government’s “Key International Counter-Terrorism Financing and Anti-Money Laundering Efforts.” Needless to say, the SWIFT program is not among them. Moreover, GAO actually lists the government’s “Key Efforts” in order, by “Entity and Importance.” What entity did GAO say was most important to our anti-terrorist financing efforts? SWIFT? No–the United Nations! GAO was not, to put it politely, in the know.

Mostly, GAO’s report focused on the second–much narrower and less important–point itemized in the report’s cover letter: “U.S. government efforts to coordinate the delivery of training and technical assistance to vulnerable countries.” This is where GAO identifies various “turf battles” that allegedly impeded progress. It is interesting that when the State Department was given a chance to review GAO’s report in draft form, one of the comments it made was that the report’s original, broad title did not accurately describe the narrow focus of the actual report. GAO agreed (see p. 62), and changed the report’s title to “TERRORIST FINANCING: Better Strategic Planning Needed to Coordinate U.S. Efforts to Deliver Counter-Terrorism Financing Training and Technical Assistance Abroad,” a topic that would not include broader anti-terror financing efforts like the SWIFT program.

Which brings us to Lichtblau’s article in the Times. For the most part, he recites the GAO’s bureaucratic critique of the programs that aid other countries. But Lichtblau couldn’t resist taking these narrow and relatively insignificant critiques and applying them more broadly to what he called “one of the main prongs in [the administration’s] attack against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.” And, of course, the Times headline writer didn’t focus on the narrow issue of aid to other countries, but instead blared: “U.S. Lacks Strategy to Curb Terror Funds.” To be fair, though, Lichtblau’s broader indictment is consistent with some of the more general (albeit completely unsubstantiated) language in the GAO report.

But Lichtblau compounded the offense by going outside the GAO report to inform the Times’ readers on the government’s broader effort to track terrorist financing. His assessment was 100% negative:

The administration has made cutting off money to terrorists one of the main prongs in its attack against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It has seized tens of millions of dollars in American accounts and assets linked to terrorist groups, prodded other countries to do the same, and is now developing a program to gain access to and track potentially hundreds of millions of international bank transfers into the United States.

But experts in the field say the results have been spotty, with few clear dents in Al Qaeda’s ability to move money and finance terrorist attacks. The Congressional report– a follow-up to a 2003 report that offered a similarly bleak assessment — buttresses those concerns.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who leads the Senate Finance Committee and was one of the lawmakers who requested the study, said he was disappointed to learn that in an area as critical as countering terrorist financing, ”they haven’t gotten very far yet.”

What can we conclude from this? Several things. First, neither Lichtblau, nor the GAO, nor Lichtblau’s “experts” knew anything about the secret SWIFT tracking program. This renders the Times’ current defense untenable.

Second, both GAO and Lichtblau were quick to criticize the government’s overall anti-terrorist finance efforts when, in fact, they had information on only one minor aspect of those efforts. This is not surprising: the federal bureaucracy and the New York Times’ staff both consist overwhelmingly of loyal Democrats.

Third, Lichtblau and his “experts” were ill-informed. Hambali, the most wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia and the architect of the Bali bombing, had been captured, with the aid of the SWIFT program, in August 2003. So readers who relied on the Times and Lichtblau’s “experts” for information on how the administration was doing in fighting al Qaeda were misinformed.

Fourth, Lichtblau’s current reporting is deeply dishonest. His statements to the effect that everyone knew about the SWIFT program are obviously false; neither he, his “experts” nor the GAO apparently were aware of it. Further, if Lichtblau were a reporter with integrity, his most recent story would have begun with an acknowledgement of his own prior, inaccurate reporting. An appropriate headline might have been: “We had it wrong: Bush administration doing great job in tracking terrorist financing.” Don’t hold your breath.

Finally, this episode casts light on the broader relationship between the Bush administration and the press. Here, the administration endured unjust, uninformed criticism first from the GAO, then, echoed and amplified, from the press. It must have been tempting, and surely would have been politically helpful, for the administration to leak the existence of the SWIFT program and the fact that its anti-terror financing programs have been successful–have, in fact, contributed to the capture of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. But the administration didn’t do that. The administration endured unjust criticism and political damage rather than expose a program that was important to the nation’s defense. How sad that Bill Keller and Eric Lichtblau didn’t learn from President Bush’s example.

I wonder how many similar instances there may be, where the administration has refrained from responding to liberal critics rather than compromise national security. Quite a few, I suspect.

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