The New York Times on a Swift Boat to Court?

In today’s terror-stricken world, which is more vital to the public’s interest: being safe, or being informed?

This very question has come before the management of the New York Times twice in the past six months. On both occasions, even though it went completely contrary to the national security requests of the White House, their conclusion was that ignorance is indeed not bliss.

Sadly, it appears that the Times doesn’t agree with the old maxim “Tis better to be safe than sorry,” for on June 23, in what is starting to become a semi-annual event, the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Eric Lichtblau and James Risen disclosed to America and her enemies the existence of another highly classified national security program designed to identify terrorist activity before it occurs.

In this case, since shortly after 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency has been working with a Belgian international banking cooperative called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. SWIFT provides electronic messaging services that direct monetary transactions worth in excess of $6 trillion a day from approximately 7,800 financial institutions (banks, brokerage firms, stock exchanges, etc.) across the globe.

By obtaining information from SWIFT, the CIA’s goal was to identify suspicious movements of currency from known terrorists in one country to possible cells elsewhere. Not only would this assist the government’s expressed goal of cutting off the funding for such activities, it also would help investigators capture such operatives here in America before they had an opportunity to do the nation any harm. And, it was working exceptionally well prior to the Times revelations:

“The Swift data has provided clues to money trails and ties between possible terrorists and groups financing them, the officials said. In some instances, they said, the program has pointed them to new suspects, while in others it has buttressed cases already under investigation.”

In fact, there have been some quite notable achievements:

“Among the successes was the capture of a Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, believed to be the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of a Bali resort, several officials said. The Swift data identified a previously unknown figure in Southeast Asia who had financial dealings with a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda; that link helped locate Hambali in Thailand in 2003, they said.

“In the United States, the program has provided financial data in investigations into possible domestic terrorist cells as well as inquiries of Islamic charities with suspected of having links to extremists, the officials said.

“The data also helped identify a Brooklyn man who was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year, the officials said. The man, Uzair Paracha, who worked at a New York import business, aided a Qaeda operative in Pakistan by agreeing to launder $200,000 through a Karachi bank, prosecutors said.”

Such successes have clearly been beneficial in the Global War on Terror as reported by former FBI member and terrorist finance expert Dennis Lormel on Friday:

“For my colleagues who have been skeptical of the U.S. Government’s efforts in terrorist financing, this program, the cooperation with other financial providers, such as First Data Corporation and Western Union, contributed significantly to the A- grade given the Government for Terrorist Financing by the 9/11 Commission.”

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission, according to ABC’s “World News Tonight, its chairman, Thomas Kean, personally asked the Times not to report this SWIFT information, and was quoted Friday evening saying:

“I think we have one less tool because we’ve – we’ve found that al Qaeda – when they find out things we’re using to intercept messages, intercept money, intercept whatever—they’d stop doing that. We were, probably, a step ahead of them and in this area, we’re not ahead of that step anymore.” 

Importantly, according to the Times, SWIFT examinations have absolutely no impact upon domestic banking transactions, and, therefore, represent no conceivable loss of financial privacy for Americans:

“The data does not allow the government to track routine financial activity, like A.T.M. withdrawals, confined to this country, or to see bank balances, Treasury officials said. And the information is not provided in real time — Swift generally turns it over several weeks later. Because of privacy concerns and the potential for abuse, the government sought the data only for terrorism investigations and prohibited its use for tax fraud, drug trafficking or other inquiries, the officials said.” 

In fact, as reported by Forbes, American banking transactions are performed by a completely separate entity from SWIFT:

“In the U.S., domestic funds transfers are handled by the Automated Clearing House, which relayed information on some 14 billion payments last year, worth a total of more than $30 trillion, including bank-originated transfers and U.S. government transfers.”

And, according to SWIFT’s own press release Friday, there were multiple levels of oversight and redundant procedures established to protect SWIFT’s valuable clients before it complied with subpoenas issued by the U.S. government:

“SWIFT negotiated with the U.S. Treasury over the scope and oversight of the subpoenas. Through this process, SWIFT received significant protections and assurances as to the purpose, confidentiality, oversight and control of the limited sets of data produced under the subpoenas. Independent audit controls provide additional assurance that these protections are fully complied with.

“All of these actions have been undertaken with advice from international and U.S. legal counsel and following our longstanding procedures on compliance, established by our Board.

“SWIFT is overseen by a senior committee drawn from the G-10 central banks and has informed them of this matter.”

As such, this national security program: appears to violate no known domestic or international banking laws; had the cooperation and oversight of the largest central banks around the world; had international legal counsel examinations regularly performed on it; was done with the approval of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, and; had absolutely no impact on Americans other than protecting them from those who would destroy them.

Yet, despite these incontrovertible facts, and with total disregard for the urgings of the Bush administration and the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the Times, similar to its decision in December 2005 to release classified information regarding terrorist surveillance, published the following statement by executive editor Bill Keller:

“‘We have listened closely to the administration’s arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration’s extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest.’”

This raises an important question: Which public?

If the financial privacy of Americans was not being compromised by this apparently legal covert operation, what exactly is the public’s vital interest? Moreover, how could such an interest likely based solely in curiosity outweigh both the public’s desire to not have any more attacks committed against them such as what transpired on 9/11, and the government’s responsibility to protect them from such incidents?

To be sure, administration officials were just as displeased with the Times’ decision as 9/11 Committee Chairman Kean. As reported by Reuters Saturday:

“‘What I find most disturbing about these stories is the fact that some of the news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs, thereby making it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks against the American people,’ [Vice President Dick Cheney] said.”

Furthermore, beyond just the egregious and potentially treasonous reporting of classified information is the Times’ penchant for exaggerating the scope of such programs to suggest that there is something nefarious for Americans to worry about even when the facts and the law belie such implications.

Although this 3,900-word front-page article by the Times did address specifics that should assuage Americans’ concerns about their own financial privacy, the opening paragraph clearly suggested otherwise:

“Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.”

And, throughout the article, there were a significant number of quotes and innuendos such as “‘the potential for abuse is enormous,’” this “raises difficult legal and public policy questions,” and the program “appears to do an end run around bank-privacy laws.” Such statements were clearly intended to make readers believe that the government’s actions are indeed compromising their own financial interests even though nothing could be further from the truth.

Much as terrorist surveillance was inaccurately depicted by the Times in December – as well as in its follow-up articles – to be nothing more than illegal wiretaps using data-mining to spy on the telephone calls of innocent Americans, Friday’s SWIFT article was similarly designed to evoke alarm amongst the citizenry for a program that can’t possibly invade their financial privacy or negatively impact them in any way.

As a result, and somewhat comically, the Times committed an act that has become its own rather convoluted euphemism for material misrepresentation of facts to prove an invalid point. Even more laughable, Times management missed the delicious irony in the name of the bank cooperative they were reporting on.

In short, and in their own words, the Times “Swift Boated” SWIFT.

Of course, it is possible that the Times doesn’t believe that this term, no matter how disingenuous, can be used to describe its own behavior which in its own view is always above reproach.

Regardless, it is high time the U.S. government took a stand against the reporting of classified intelligence information by America’s press. Irrespective of the self-serving opinions of Bill Keller and his associates, the public’s interest in safety and national defense is much greater than its desire to know the intricate details of how the government achieves such vital goals.

This is particularly true during a time of war when the program at issue has absolutely no impact on any citizen within America’s borders, is not violating domestic or international laws, and has no Geneva Convention component.

With that in mind, the Justice Department, led by attorney general Alberto Gonzales, must investigate and decide whether or not to prosecute the Times for its possibly treasonous acts. To be sure, the Times is cynically counting on such an eventuality not coming to fruition due to the government’s fear that during this process, it would be compelled to reveal details about the SWIFT program that might further compromise its viability.

This was certainly the case with terrorist surveillance when such revelations would have been tremendously detrimental to national security beyond what was despicably reported in December. Almost unquestionably, the Times and its attorneys counted on this.

However, in this instance, the damage to this program has probably been done, and despite the terrorists now having knowledge concerning this matter, they have limited alternatives to move large sums of money electronically. As such, whatever else might emerge during testimony and discovery shouldn’t so compromise the program that it would be rendered less useful than it already has been.

The upside, though, is that other counterterrorism programs either currently in existence or to be implemented at a later date would more likely remain confidential if news organizations such as the Times were suddenly concerned with federal prosecution for revealing national security secrets in the future. Given this, even if the SWIFT strategy was indeed further compromised by a legal action against the Times, it likely would be worth sacrificing what is left of the program for the benefit of other more important espionage activities now and in years to come.

Moreover, putting Risen, Lichtblau, and Keller in jail brings with it the ancillary benefit of encouraging other journalists and editors to find more socially beneficial ways to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.