The quality of antique media’s reporting on “domestic spying” stories is abysmal. There seems to be something about the phrase “domestic spying” that sets reporters aquiver, so that they can neither keep facts straight nor separate their feelings from their reporting. The latest example is this Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff on a Pentagon program that keeps track of anti-military demonstrations.
The first absurdity is the headline: “The Other Big Brother.” The first “Big Brother” is the NSA’s international intercept program. But the suggestion that monitoring international communications between al Qaeda and its American contacts is equivalent to the totalitarian state depicted in 1984 is laughable. The “Other Big Brother,” the subject of Newsweek’s article, is the Defense Department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) program.
Newsweek begins by describing a demonstration of “peace activists” outside Halliburton’s Houston headquarters, on which someone in the Defense Department wrote a report. Newsweek then characterizes CIFA as one of several “secret government programs that spy on Americans in the name of national security.” But wait! Where is there any evidence of “spying”? Since when is writing a report on a demonstration “spying”?
Newsweek compounds its sloppy reporting with misleading metaphors: “It isn’t clear how many groups and individuals were snagged by CIFA’s dragnet.” Which summons up images of innocent citizens being dragged off the street and jailed; the definition of “dragnet” is “A system of coordinated procedures for apprehending criminal suspects or other wanted persons.” But these antiwar demonstrators have not been apprehended or arrested. All that has happened is that someone wrote a report about the demonstration.
What’s more, it appears that the information that goes into CIFA’s reports comes mainly from the internet. That’s right–the Defense Department is surfing the web, and identifying antiwar and antimilitary demonstrations that might be linked to domestic terror threats! This is what passes for “spying” in Newsweek’s world.
Newsweek’s main source for its story is William Arkin, whom the magazine describes blandly as “a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who writes widely about military affairs.” This is, to put it mildly, a tendentious description. Arkin is a vitriolic critic of the Bush administration, and an alumnus of such far-left organizations as Greenpeace. Hugh Hewitt researched Arkin two years ago, and wrote an article in the Daily Standard titled “Who Is William Arkin?”. Hugh describes a speech that Arkin gave in 2002:
In his lengthy and vitriolic attack on the Bush administration, Arkin admitted to feeling “cynical about the fact that we are going to war to enhance the economic interests of the Enron class,” and declared that “the war against terrorism is overstated.” Arkin believed, in fact, that the war “is not the core United States national security interest today.” He rhetorically asked the audience: “Aren’t I just another leftist, self-hating American?” and condemned the administration for taking “enormous liberties with American freedoms.”
So William Arkin is a bitter anti-Bush partisan; yet Newsweek takes his words at face value and describes him only as “a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who writes widely about military affairs.”
Of course, notwithstanding Newsweek’s breathless and misleading prose, there is nothing illegal or improper about writing reports on anti-military demonstrations. Whether it is worth the effort to write such reports is debatable, but that’s another question. And Isikoff offers no evidence that more than a de minimis effort is devoted to keeping track of the military’s critics. The “blockbuster” revelation supporting Newsweek’s “Big Brother” characterization is that the Defense Department violated its own regulation by inadvertently retaining the names of some individuals who participated in anti-military demonstrations for more than 90 days. (Such names have now been ordered deleted.) Wow, think of that! Reminds you of Stalin, doesn’t it? Well, no; but apparently that’s the association–“Big Brother”–that Newsweek makes.
If the Defense Department ever starts shooting or arresting (DoD has no such power, of course) participants in anti-military demonstrations, Newsweek will have a genuine civil liberties scandal to report on. But that hasn’t happened and isn’t going to happen. No matter how the magazine tries to color the facts, there simply isn’t anything wrong with writing reports on demonstrations.
Finally, Isikoff can’t resist a parting shot at the first “Big Brother” program, NSA’s international electronic intercepts:
[T]he White House has spent weeks in damage-control mode, defending the controversial program that allowed the National Security Agency to monitor the telephone conversations of U.S. persons suspected of terror links, without obtaining warrants.
Note the inaccurate description of the NSA program. The NSA was not “allowed…to monitor the telephone conversations of U.S. persons suspected of terror links.” It was allowed to monitor electronic communications of al Qaeda members overseas, including their communications with persons in the U.S. And the suggestion that the White House is in “damage control mode,” defending a “controversial” program, is mere wishful thinking. It would be more accurate, based on poll data, to call the NSA program “wildly popular” than “controversial.” And the administration has been on the attack, defending the NSA program aggressively and confidently, hardly in “damage control mode.” But when antique media reporters describe the world, they all too often describe what they wish for, not what they see.
UPDATE: A reader asks: “Why are you spying on Newsweek? And why is Newsweek spying on the Pentagon?” Heh.