Thursday, July 06, 2006

Worthy of the Gas Chamber?

Larry Johnson has a useful compilation of some of the statements by Bush administration officials concerning specific details relating to the government's tracking of financial transactions. Johnson's summary makes for a valuable reference guide to my prior post on the subject (as well as the invaluable work Glenn Greenwald has been doing on this front). As should be apparent, the statements cited by Johnson were all made prior to the stories published in the Wall Street Journal, LA Times and New York Times that have garnered so much attention over the past weeks.

Despite the fact that all three of those newspapers carried the story on the same day, it should be pointed out that, oddly enough, it is only the New York Times that has induced the wrath of the Bush administration, GOP officials and assorted conservative pundits - with some going as far as calling for a "war" against the NY Times and the execution of Bill Keller! By gas chamber no less! Thus far, the Wall Street Journal and LA Times have gotten off relatively unscathed. I wonder why that is? Hmmm.

Regardless of the over-the-top reaction on the Right, the truth of the matter is that terrorist organizations were already well aware that their financial transactions were being tracked - both within the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, most terrorist organizations are not that stupid. Our lives would be so much easier if only they were unaware of Intelligence 101. Larry Johnson, pulling no punches:

Only people trading clam shells for coconuts would have been unaware that any financial transaction moving through the international financial system--which includes SWIFT, FedWire, and CHIPS—was being scrutinized by the United States Government. As I noted earlier, Bush official, Juan Zarate, was telling Congress in February 2002 that Bin Laden and his crew were taking precautions because traditional banking money movements made them vulnerable to detection.

The furor over the “SWIFT” story has little to do with keeping America safe and a lot to do with keeping Republicans in power. If the leak was so devastating there would be a full court investigation of who in the Federal Government spoke to the reporters. But, as shown above, this information was not secret and was already in the public domain. It appears that Bush, with the advice of Karl Rove, sees demonizing the New York Times as a great way to energize a flagging political base.

The slightly more nuanced critique of the disclosures made by the Wall Street Journal, LA Times and NY Times, as stated by a contributor to American Footprints, has to do with the fact that, now that this story has been publicized, foreign "banks may be reluctant to cooperate with the program." Interestingly enough, as Victor Comras notes on the Counterterrorism Blog, the reaction on the part of the foreign public - and the foreign banks - has been more one of bemused curiosity than outrage - let alone outrage sufficient to alter their erstwhile cooperation.

European reaction to the New York Times revelations concerning US monitoring of SWIFT has been quite muted. There has been no public outcry, as was the case with reports on CIA renditions and allegations of secret prisons and interrogation centers in European countries. And Europe's financial and banker community appears largely unfazed by the NY Times report.

Of note, the European audience was more 'outraged at the outrage' - so to speak.

The European press reaction was also quite muted. Press stories in Europe often expressed more amusement than concern. And more concern was expressed with what they perceived as a concerted challenge to a free press in the United States. That was the main theme, for example in a front page article in France's Le Monde, which dismissed the idea that there was any merit to Treasury Secretary Snow's objection that the NY Times article would result in European bankers' curtailing their cooperation with the program. Rather, Le Monde castigated the US Administration and what it termed "militant American conservatives" for attacking the New York Times with such vitriol. [emphasis added]

So let's sum this up: Not only were most of the details concerning these programs already in the public record (courtesy of the Bush administration and the President himself!), but terrorist organizations had already been adjusting their behavior under the assumption or knowledge that their financial activities were being monitored (which would have been obvious regardless of any official statements to that effect).

Further, our allies don't appear concerned or particularly alarmed by the revelations - and certainly not enough so to endanger their continued cooperation in connection with these programs. And, yet, for the above stated underwhelming reasons, the Right wants to radically alter the rules governing our free press - with far too many mainstream voices calling for the imprisonment and execution of journalists.

On the other hand, many onlookers (at home and abroad) are rather alarmed at the remarkably fevered pitch of violent rhetoric and open totalitarian exhortations emanating from the highest levels of the GOP on down (including the President and his cabinet). So if we're worried about alienating our allies, someone should probably tell the GOP punditocracy and politicians to tone down their reckless assault on our free press. My guess is, that's hurting our broader objectives a lot more than the bombshell revelation that we're watching Bin Laden's money.

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