Both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney all but accused the New York Times of treason last month when the Times and two other papers published an account of a secret government program to track bank transfers that might involve terrorist groups. Was their ire justified?
At the height of the Cold War, I was a member of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), a top secret organization you never heard of that planned for nuclear war in Europe. I had a security clearance so high I couldn’t even tell anyone I had it. If I’d leaked information from the NPG, I would and should have been jailed, because such information might have aided Soviet war planners then targeting American cities.
So I understand the need for government secrecy in national security. Especially in wartime, there should be clear limits on what the press can release without jeopardizing national security, and there must be enough of a dialogue between government and the press so that those limits are respected.
But the bar-the standard for what information, if leaked, would endanger the nation -is high. In the past it has focused on whether or not lives were at stake (for example, revealing the names and locations of secret operatives) or situations in which the leaked information (such as NATO war plans) would give a clear, significant advantage to an enemy or potential enemy.
A major reason that bar is high is because of the necessary balance between secrecy and oversight. The more secrets the Executive Branch is allowed to keep to itself, the less subject it is to legitimate oversight by the other branches of government, by the press, and ultimately by the people. The less oversight, the more likely that the party in power will abuse that power and the nation will suffer for it.
The situation is made worse by this Administration, which has relentlessly pushed for broad expansions of executive power, expansions granted by a compliant Congress. The new powers have been justified to the electorate by Administration statements that have successfully focused the nation, post-9/11, on real or contrived threats that demand “strong leadership” from the Oval Office-and a willingness on the part of fearful citizens to accept a false tradeoff between security and freedom.
It’s dangerous enough when a presidency conflates the national interest with its own partisan interests. It’s doubly dangerous when that presidency consistently gets away with using “national security” as a curtain to hide mistakes and excesses that would never otherwise stand the light of day. America is becoming Oz, the place where unaccountable power rules by fear from behind a curtain, emitting smoke and noise.
The few tepid Congressional hearings held this year on national security issues only underscore the failure of this Congress to even try to balance the powers given a wartime President against its own duty to oversee those powers. That failure has led to unparalleled assaults on civil liberties, a dangerous erosion of Constitutional checks-and-balances and a near absence-certainly in the majority party-of any serious efforts to question the wisdom of policies developed by small, closed coteries in the Executive Branch. Examples are the unauthorized wiretaps program, an energy “policy” guided in secret by oil execs, the “national security letters” that allow the FBI to pry into personal information such as what books you read, the tortures conducted in your name at Guantanamo or secret “rendition” centers overseas-and the war in Iraq.
With Congress on leave from its Constitutional responsibilities, the only oversight left comes from the press, which has finally begun to wake from its own long and unprincipled sleep.
The Bush Administration has become so used to the absence of any serious, sustained oversight that its self-righteous objections to new challenges from the press seem pathetic. The latest uproar has been the Administration’s strong attacks on the New York Times for publishing information on the government’s attempts to track financial transfers of money that could aid terrorists. The attacks were notable not just because they came from the highest levels of government, but also because the information published by the Times had been available for years to any terrorist with an Internet connection and half a brain.
It was also notable that only the New York Times took the major fire, not the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal, which actually claimed to have scooped the New York Times on the story. Why did the President and the Vice-President single out just the New York Times? Because bashing that paper is throwing red meat to their political base, while bashing the Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times would have netted no such political gain. Note that these broadsides against the New York Times were leveled just as Congress was engaged in meaningless posturing on flag burning and gay marriage. In Oz, the machine keeps pouring out smoke and noise.
What does this Administration really want to protect? Do media revelations of illegal wiretapping, sanctioned torture, snooping into private citizens’ reading lists, and secret tracking of bank transfers really endanger national security?
That case is very weak. It’s inconceivable that people smart enough to pull off 9/11 can’t learn of these efforts to thwart them, and at a level at least as detailed as the published accounts. Anyone who’s seen 24 or Mission Impossible knows that even a bush league terrorist uses throwaway cell phones and doesn’t keep his cash in a bank. And it’s hypocritical for the White House to sound the national security trumpet in this case, but then muffle it in its own deliberate outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Clearly what the Bush Administration and its yes-people in Congress want to protect is not just their secrets-it’s the political power those secrets help sustain.
With elections approaching that could seriously weaken its hold on Congress, the last thing this Administration wants or needs is more public accounting of its failures and its assaults on civil liberties. That’s why it’s so unnerved by the press’s new challenges to its national security rationale for secrecy. The political lesson from Hurricane Katrina is clear: with no curtain of national security to hide behind, the awesome incompetence of this Administration was exposed for all to see. That revelation further undermined a key hook in this Administration’s claim to be above the need for oversight-its image of competency.
“National security” has been the curtain that’s hidden the wizard for six years. The press is beginning to tell us that the Administration behind that curtain is just as wrong-headed and inept in its pursuit of the war on Islamist terrorists as it was in dealing with Katrina. It’s real oversight, and it’s long overdue.
Copyright 2006 JOHN GRAHAM