WHAT IF THE CIA OR FBI should catch wind of an imminent plot to blow an American airliner out of the sky? "Should the government disclose terrorist threats to the public and let passengers make their own decisions about how to react?" Not all that many years ago, the New York Times editorial page believed that even here "the answer ought to be no." Sure, hundreds of lives might be saved, in the near term, by such an announcement. But at what cost to the nation's most highly classified and clandestine counterterrorism programs?
"Terrorist threats are not just another species of consumer information," the Times reminded its readers; "they are a form of intelligence that depends on secrecy in collection, expertise in interpretation and extreme care in dissemination." Bad guys read the newspaper, too, in other words. And even well-intentioned public disclosures might give those bad guys an advantage: "Valuable sources of intelligence would dry up as terrorists aware of information leaks sought to eliminate the leakers." Best to keep everybody in the dark.
That was in April 1989. As recently as November 2000, the paper of record still thought it "understandable" for the government to investigate and prosecute media leaks that compromise "the secrecy of the nation's most sensitive intelligence gathering systems." Programs involving "electronic intercepts and other data obtained by advanced satellites and other devices" were a particular concern. The more they learned about American signals intelligence capabilities, after all, the easier it would become for our "adversaries to cut off access to vitally important information about threats to the United States." So "responsible news organizations" would want to be especially "mindful of the security concerns" when reporting on these surveillance initiatives.
Meanwhile, responsible news organizations might also want to consider explicitly endorsing a joint congressional investigative committee's call for the extension of such surveillance to U.S.-based targets. "The CIA and the National Security Agency, which does electronic eavesdropping, will also have to devote more of their efforts to analyzing international terrorist threats inside the United States," the New York Times announced in July 2003.
Now, over two years later, the Times has decided to reveal that on the very day its editorial page offered this suggestion, just such an NSA domestic surveillance effort was already underway, on orders from the president. And all of a sudden, responsible news organizations everywhere are loudly warning that the End of Democracy is nigh. It is an outrage that George W. Bush did what the New York Times recommended--according, most notably, and weirdly, to the New York Times itself.
But what did the president actually do? And what exactly is so outrageous about it?
The Weekly Standard candidly confesses that we've never been entirely clear on these last two points. And, now having read State of War, the just-published book-length exposé of Bush administration "covert lawbreaking" by Times national security correspondent James Risen, The Weekly Standard further confesses that we are more confused than ever.
According to the jacket-flap bio, Risen, principal coauthor of his paper's vaguely sourced NSA-spying scoop last month, lives with his wife and three sons at an unspecified location "outside Washington, D.C." There he was presumably obliged to communicate with his sources by means of dead-drop microfiche deposits in hollowed-out tree stumps. Which is to say: Risen's new book, too, is vaguely sourced--and vague in many other key respects, as well, for that matter. Nevertheless, no better-detailed account of the NSA surveillance program in question has yet appeared in print. The story, as Risen tells it, goes like this:
Beginning in early 2002, the National Security Agency began monitoring telephone numbers and email addresses discovered in the computers, cell phones, and address books of captured al Qaeda operatives, and it has continued to do so, following resultant leads into an expanding, digital network of terrorism suspects. Even by Risen's account, an overwhelming majority of the program's targets are located overseas--currently "about 7,000 people" abroad, along with "about 500" other people they've contacted here in the States. Just the same, because nowadays "many purely international communications--telephone calls and email messages from the Middle East to Asia, for example--end up going through telecommunications switches that are physically based in the United States," eavesdropping on any call so routed "might be a violation of the regulations and laws restricting the NSA from spying inside the United States."
It was, of course, through a superabundance of caution about what "might" be a violation in such circumstances that American counterterrorism investigators notoriously failed to monitor certain phone calls and email traffic exchanged by the 9/11 conspirators. And it was to clarify that American counterterrorism investigators should never make such a mistake again that President Bush seems to have signed the NSA surveillance order that's now got everybody's underwear in such a wringer.
James Risen repeatedly calls the program "illegal," but offers not a single word of serious statutory or constitutional analysis to sustain the conclusion. He complains that, "for the first time since the Watergate-era abuses, the NSA is spying on Americans again, and on a large scale"--a reference, once more, to those 500 al Qaeda email buddies he's mentioned, who together represent 1.7 ten-thousandths of one percent of the U.S. population. Shifting gears, Risen next raises alarm over the possibility that NSA could begin domestic spying on a large scale if it wanted to; "there seems to be no physical or logistical obstacle" preventing it at present. Neither does there seem to be any physical or logistical obstacle preventing NSA from sneaking into James Risen's bathroom and stealing his toothbrush, of course. The question remains: Why on earth would they want to?
And the answer seems to remain, as it always ultimately does, that the NSA is currently to be feared because the NSA currently takes its orders from George W. Bush and the "neocons" whom Bush is "controlled by." And these people are demonic.
Among the "most worrisome aspects" of the NSA program, Risen writes, is its place in a much "broader series of policies and procedures" that now "threaten to erode civil liberties in the United States." He mentions but a single example: "In 2002, the U.S. military expanded its role inside the country with the creation of the new Northern Command, the first military command in recent history that is designed to protect the U.S. homeland. The creation of Northern Command has already raised the specter of military intelligence agents operating on U.S. soil, permanently developing new links with local law enforcement agencies, particularly near large military bases."
Imagine: Our military now has a specific assignment to guard and defend the territorial United States, and certain of its base-command officers might eventually establish cordial relations with the police departments in neighboring communities.
God help us all.
- David Tell, for the Editors