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Can't Happen Here

Watch what you say!POLJUNK contributor Jude Lemrow takes a gander at the recent right-wing hullabaloo related to media reports on secret Bush surveillance programs and wonders why these guys hate Freedom so much and why they'd rather be Stalinist muscleheads?


There's been a lot of fuss lately about the media's role in disseminating information regarding secret government programs that are designed to detect terrorist-related activity. Recently, the New York Times ran an article on a program called SWIFT that scrutinizes bank data of individuals and organizations with suspected terrorist ties by identifying suspect financial transactions.

There has been a virtual chorus of conservative voices excoriating The New York Times for running the story, and thereby letting the terrorists in on a secret program. Perhaps it was this quote that set people off, "Administration officials, however, asked The Times not to publish this article, saying that disclosure of the Swift program could jeopardize its effectiveness." Given the relationships between the Bush Administration and any news outlets that aren't explicitly right-leaning, I'm not surprised that the article was published against the Administration's wishes. The Bushies probably love to make things difficult for the NYT whenever possible. I suppose that if one wanted to, one could read more into the article than was written. A certain number of Rightie lunatics certainly did.

Michael Barone at Real Clear Politics wonders, "Why do they (the New York Times) hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack?"

David Limbaugh had this to say on NewsMax.com, "It is no exaggeration to say that under the false pretense that the public is entitled to this information, the Times has aided and abetted our terrorist enemies in the war on terror."

Michelle Malkin laments, "Now all their careful efforts have been destroyed by Bush-deranged reporters who fashion themselves the true protectors of America."

Now, to give you an idea of just how secretive the program is, here's a link to the SWIFT website, viewable by anyone in the world with access to the internet, presumably including terrorists:

I found roughly the same amount of operational information on the SWIFT website describing the what, when, where, or how SWIFT goes about tracking data that I found in the New York Times article. This is to say that I found NO such information, for obvious reasons.

Predictably, right-wingers became unhinged when they discovered the Times article. The Al-Qaeda loving New York Times and other America-hating liberals are out to undermine our national security again! Never mind that a program with its own website can hardly be considered secret. In any case, most of the anti-New York Times rhetoric related to this topic bandied about by right-wing commentators and pundits assumes that the SWIFT program was known only to participating governments and financial institutions prior to it being "outed" by these scurrilous Liberals.

In the days after the article was published, I found an odd trend as I perused the political blogosphere. Many conservatives, who usually champion freedom and limited government, seem to be promoting the idea that our big centralized government should operate secretive monitoring programs with little or no transparency and that the citizens of this democracy should have no right to know about the existence of programs that might very well affect each of us as individuals, whether we're talking about monitoring financial transactions, phone tapping, whether warrants should be required for various forms of snooping or whatever.

A common conservative defense is, "If you're not involved in any wrongdoing, then you have nothing to worry about." This will be followed with tired lines about being at war and in wartime the government should have special powers, blah, blah, blah... Trust us and we will protect you!

1) If the American public as a whole subscribes to these concepts, then those in power have every incentive to ensure that we are constantly in a state of war, thereby necessitating a continuum and/or expansion of special or secret powers. Perhaps it is no accident that three years on, after turning corner after corner, and capturing or killing so many of Al Qaeda's #2 leaders (how many #2's can you have, anyway?), Iraq is still such a mess. Additionally, a war on terror, by design, is never ending. Since it's a war on a tactic and not a declared enemy, there can never be a resolution, and Bush acknowledged as much in an August 2004 interview.

Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania Has Always Been At War With Eastasia...

2) If these powers are not held in check to some degree or are not subject to some semblance of general transparency, then there is nothing to stop this administration (or a future and eventual Democratic one) from expanding these programs beyond their original (and for the sake of this discussion, I will assume legitimate) intentions regarding the Global War On Terror and perhaps using these programs against American citizens; perhaps those who don't belong to the correct political party, don't attend the correct churches, or don't support other correct party-approved agenda items. Oh, I forgot; this is America, those things can't happen here...

Conservatives seem to be promoting a position on these issues that might be more in line with the thinking of old Soviet-style party hardliners than freedom-loving Americans; sacrifice the free flow of information and, subsequently, its critical role in allowing an electorate to make informed decisions at the polls, on the altar of party power. Never mind that any remotely competent terrorist financiers would probably anticipate government scrutiny of bank transactions or wiretaps or whatever anyway and take appropriate evasive actions. In light of this, taking a newspaper to task for disclosing the existence of such programs makes about as much sense as being angry with the newspapers for mentioning that the Air Force has airplanes or that the Army has tanks. Any terrorist worth his bomb belt has to figure that governments and financial institutions are on the lookout for shady activity.

Of course, it isn't enough to simply take the New York Times to task for exercising poor judgment. Many right-wingers have called for the paper's editors and writers to be tried for treason. If we start jailing America's journalists, then they will be scared into subservience to the government. A free press is integral to the foundation of democracy, as Vladimir Putin had to be reminded recently.

"I'm calling on the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of The New York Times, its reporters, the editors that worked on this, and the publisher. We're in a time of war ... and what they've done here is absolutely disgraceful. I believe they violated the Espionage Act" and another statute, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We're at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous," he later told The Associated Press. – from FOX News.

"I think the attorney general has an absolute obligation to consider prosecution here," says the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol. [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/25/06]

From the June 26 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews (via Media Matters):

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Here to pick apart the politics of this story is former presidential candidate Al Sharpton and radio talk show host Melanie Morgan. Melanie, what's the issue here as you see it?
MORGAN: I see it as treason, plain and simple, and my advice to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at this point in time is chop-chop, hurry up, let's get these prosecutors fired up and get the subpoenas served, get the indictments going, and get these guys behind jail.

One minute, the Right is reminding us that we are fighting a war to protect our freedoms. The next minute, they want to jeopardize freedom by expanding government's powers to monitor its citizens with little or no oversight or transparency. I'm left wondering, "Is the Right for freedom or against it?"

--Jude Lemrow


Great piece. I've been burned out on politics for a while but I will definitely admit to being mightily amused by all the Wingnuts spitting all over themselves.

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