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

More on that UN document

A news story in today’s New York Times mentions this item by retired American diplomat Victor Comras. It is the same item referenced by the Times editorial to which I linked last night.

Comras writes that “reports on US monitoring of SWIFT transactions have been out there for some time. The information was fairly well known by terrorism financing experts back in 2002.” And he quotes from a publicly available (though not this morning) report he wrote for the United Nations:

The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions. The Group recommends the adoption of similar mechanisms by other countries.

Now, there’s exposure and there’s exposure. I suppose you could argue that the terrorists don’t spend their time perusing the UN’s Web site (although I wouldn’t be surprised if they do), but that articles published on the front of the Times are likely to capture their attention. But we’re starting to slice the salami pretty thinly here.

A number of people have made the point that the terrorists already knew their finances were being tracked. Now we know that it’s been publicly known since at least December 2002 precisely how that tracking is taking place.

Cries of espionage and even treason are starting to look fairly ridiculous.

The White House and its defenders also give the game away by refusing to differentiate between the NSA no-warrant wiretapping program — obviously illegal, given that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires warrants — and the SWIFT program, which appears to be on more solid legal ground.

By lumping them together, folks like U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., make it clear that they’re only interested in scoring points against the media.

Update: More on Comras from today’s Boston Globe:

Victor D. Comras , a former US diplomat who oversaw efforts at the United Nations to improve international measures to combat terror financing, said it was common knowledge that worldwide financial transactions were being closely monitored for links to terrorists. “A lot of people were aware that this was going on,” said Comras, one of a half-dozen financial experts UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recruited for the task.

“Unless they were pretty dumb, they had to assume” their transactions were being monitored, Comras said of terrorist groups. “We have spent the last four years bragging how effective we have been in tracking terrorist financing.”

Read the whole thing. It’s starting to look like the Times’ best defense is that this is very old news.

Update II: By the way, I’m not saying this line of defense is something of which the media ought to be proud. Take it away, Jay:

The media is now faced with two unattractive scenarios: A.) Defend the articles as news — and face up to the consequence that outlets reported on what appears to be a lawful and effective program or B.) Admit the articles weren’t news — and face up to the consequence that the public now knows outlets didn’t do basic pre-publication research.

I’m not sure I agree, but at the moment I can’t say I disagree, either. How’s that for decisiveness?

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Common sense and SWIFT


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  1. Jack B.

    Watched O’Reilly last night. Don’t make a habit of it, but once in a while it’s good to get the blood pumping. His predictable rant about the crimes of the Times exposed the underbelly of “fair and balanced.” Nary a word was said about his ideological brethren at the Wall Street Journal, a paper that just happened to break the same SWIFT story on the same day as NYT.

  2. Anonymous

    Does that one paragraph cover everything the NY Times needed 20 anonymous sources to report?

  3. Anonymous

    Apparently Jules Crittenden thinks a story is only newsworthy if it has been kept secret from the public. But he also thinks that printing things that are kept secret from the public is tresonous [sic] and a newspaper should never print them. This guy is an editor at the Herald. Small wonder.

  4. Lex

    Re update II: The existence of the program wasn’t news, or shouldn’t have been, but the fact that this “emergency” program continues to operate 4 1/2 years later without judicial or legislative oversight (until the executive branch knew an article was forthcoming and belatedly informed some committee heads)is news: It’s part and parcel of a pattern by the admin to resist oversight wherever possible. Did the NYT handle the story properly? No, not really. But it did no harm and it adds another piece to a disturbing puzzle.

  5. In a position to know

    Jack,WSJ does a better job of separating news from editorial page than any national paper I know.The very fact that they ran this story at all gives the lie to your weak assertion. Writers for the Journal are far to the left of the editors there, a situation that has been the case since the days of Barney Kilgore as editor.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    in a position — I read a study a few months ago that found the news pages of the WSJ were the most liberal of any they rated, including the NYT. So you’re definitely on to something.

  7. Jack B

    Dan and “in a position …”-Your parsing efforts notwithstanding, most readers make no distinction between the editorial and news sides of a publication. I think you’d both agree that the WSJ is generally regarded as a conservative newspaper, and the NYT as liberal. Conservative pundits like O’Reilly realize that if they were to vilify WSJ for the same “sins” as NYT, they’d be pissing in their own well. Thus, the liberal rag gets slammed for breaking the story while the conservative pub gets a free pass.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Jack — No, I disagree with you pretty vehemently. Among people who follow these things, the liberal orientation of the WSJ’s news pages is well-known. It’s as though the editorial and news sections were two separate publications. I do agree with you on this: the ultraconservative leanings of the WSJ’s editorial pages make it very easy for someone like O’Reilly to take advantage of people who don’t actually read the WSJ.

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