By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Targeting the Times

The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald goes after the New York Times in a big way over the financial-tracking revelations. Writing for the Weekly Standard, she begins:

By now it’s undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat. So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives.

I’ll give her this: To my layman’s eyes, she seems to make a pretty good case that the program is legal. Mac Donald continues:

The Supreme Court has squarely held that bank records are not constitutionally protected private information. The government may obtain them without seeking a warrant from a court, because the bank depositor has already revealed his transactions to his bank — or, in the case of the present program, to a whole slew of banks that participate in the complicated international wire transfers overseen by the Belgian clearinghouse known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or Swift. To get specific information about individual terror suspects, intelligence agents prepare an administrative subpoena, which is issued after extensive internal agency review. The government does not monitor a terror suspect’s international wire transfers in real time; the records of his transactions are delivered weeks later. And Americans’ routine financial transactions, such as ATM withdrawals or domestic banking, lie completely outside of the Swift database.

This strikes me as fairly persuasive, and quite different from the NSA warrantless wiretapping program that the Times exposed last December. On the other hand, Mac Donald’s attack on the Times is so sweeping that I can’t imagine she’s all that troubled by the NSA program, either. So I don’t know.

It does seem that one of Mac Donald’s fellow-travelers on the right, the blogger Captain Ed, undermines her case against the Times at least in part by writing:

The continuing arrogance of Keller and his two reporters has damaged our national security, and in this case on a ridiculously laughable story that tells us absolutely nothing we didn’t already know in concept. They keep pretending to offer news to their readers, but instead all they do is blow our national-security programs for profit.

This is quite an odd assertion, is it not? On the one hand, the idea that this is news is “ridiculously laughable.” On the other, the Times “has damaged our national security.” Well, which is it? (Via “Today’s Blogs” on Slate, which also linked to Media Nation’s item on Times executive editor Bill Keller’s open letter.)

It seems to me that there are several crucial differences between the wiretapping and financial-tracking programs — and perhaps chief in importance is the fact that the financial program depends on subpoenas issued to SWIFT. That would appear to give this a patina of legality that’s utterly lacking from the wiretapping saga.

President Bush, naturally, is calling the Times’ behavior “disgraceful,” which is the same word he used to describe its revelation of the wiretapping program — a program that, on the face of it, violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires warrants.

Of more interest are the comments of Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who, unlike the president, demonstrates an ability to distinguish between the two programs. A Reid spokesman tells the Times that Reid believes the SWIFT program “does not appear to be based on the same shaky and discredited legal analysis the vice president and his allies invoked to underpin the NSA domestic spying program.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wants to prosecute the Times, and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wants to investigate the White House.

All is murk.

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Keller on the SWIFT story


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  1. mike_b1

    I would argue that the Bush Administration has damaged our national security by sticking its Pinnochio-like nose into the rest of the world’s affairs, thus alienating our friends and antagonizing our enemies. Good going, Georgie!

  2. mike_b1

    P.S. Uh, Dan, Peter King is a Republican.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    And a well-known Republican at that — one of McCain’s most prominent backers in 2000. Early-morning brain freeze on my part, now fixed.

  4. Anonymous

    Dan,Please run, do not walk, over to the Herald website and read Jules Crittenden’s column about the Times coverage. Crittenden, supposedly a journalist, is actually accusing the Times of treason. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  5. tony schinella

    This is insane. If our bank records aren’t private, what the hell is? There is no reason to be searching these records. These people are nuts.

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