The Magazine

National Security Be Damned

The guiding philosophy on West 43rd Street.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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The truth the Times evades is that while every power, public or private, can be misused, the mere possibility of abuse does not mean that a necessary power should be discarded. Instead, the rational response is to create checks that minimize the risk of abuse. Under the Times's otherworldly logic, the United States might be better off with no government at all, because governmental power can be abused. It should not have newspapers, because the power of the press can be abused to harm the national interest (as the Times so amply demonstrates). Police forces should be disbanded, because police officers can overstep their authority. National security wiretaps? Heavens! Expose all of them.

The Times implies a second reason it ignored the government's fervent requests to protect the program's secrecy: Large databases were involved. The Times has an attack of the vapors whenever evidence of terrorist planning is found in databases, reasoning that any program to harvest that evidence is a privacy threat and should be exposed. Such logic, if taken seriously, would mean an end to all computerized investigations and would create an impregnable shield to terrorist activity in cyberspace. Anything a terrorist does that is recorded by computers will by its very nature be interspersed among records of millions if not billions or trillions of innocent transactions by unrelated parties. That fact alone should not disable the government from seeking the evidence; it merely means that the government should follow existing procedures governing the collection of evidence--as, in the case of the Swift program, it has.

The paranoia of the New York Times's editors really has reached astonishing levels. When you think about it, virtually every piece of evidence ever gathered in criminal or national security cases is embedded in harmless activity. On the Times's theory, police officers should not walk beats looking for criminal activity, because they are observing innocent passersby as well.

The Times offers a third justification for its reckless breach of national security: "The program . . . is a significant departure from typical practice in how the government acquires Americans' financial records." Indeed. And 9/11 marked a significant departure from most Americans' experience of jet travel. The hijackings revealed unmistakably the need for innovative intelligence programs to disrupt future attacks. By the Times's hidebound ethic, however, anything new that the Bush administration does to protect the public is suspect and must be revealed. Needless to add, this prejudice against innovation will not prevent the Times from raising hell about Bush administration incompetence if the country is attacked again, just as the Times railed against the administration for "failing to connect the dots" before 9/11--a failure caused in large part by unnecessary civil libertarian restraints on fully lawful powers.

The Times's ritual invocation of the "public interest" cannot disguise the weakness of their argument for revealing this highly successful antiterror program. Its editors seem aware of this, and hence try to link this program to the more legitimately controversial NSA wiretapping program that was revealed (by the same reporters--Eric Lichtblau and James Risen) last December, also in defiance of administration requests. Though acknowledging in passing that the Swift program is in fact separate from the wiretapping program, the Times links them on the grounds that both "grew out of the Bush administration's desire to exploit technological tools to prevent another terrorist strike." The revelation of the NSA program has "provoked fierce public debate and spurred lawsuits," the Times notes with self-satisfaction, and thus, by implication, the Swift program should, too. Do they seriously believe the U.S. government should not exploit technological tools in the war on terror?

Al Qaeda has long worked to manipulate the media in its favor. It can disband that operation now, knowing that, unbidden, America's most powerful newspaper is looking out for its interests.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.