Spin: Make Folks Worry, and Hope They Jump to Conclusions
That defense attorney who runs the site Talk Left - where all sorts of attorneys arguing in court for their clients against the administration on this issue or that, or springing innocent people from death row, or defending detainees at Guantánamo, have their say - is Jeralyn Merritt. Friday, June 23, she shifted from her site to MSNBC to cover for their NYU journalism professor and political expert Eric Alterman. He's in Europe working on anther book, as if When Presidents Lie wasn't enough. So we're talking the opposition here. These are people unhappy with how things are going these days. They used to be in the minority. Things change.
In any event, it was her job to offer comment on the big events at the end of the week, and that called for making a decision - what big and what's not? And her contention? This - "While for some, the big story today is the indictment of wannabe warriors in Florida, I think the government's attempt to prevent the media from publishing articles about the Administration's use of an international financial cooperative's database to obtain banking records without judicial authorization is more compelling."
Of course she doesn't note the two are connected. But if it's going to come out - no matter how you plead with or threaten the press - that you are, in an entirely new area, doing massive snooping with no warrants or any oversight of any kind, and you've been doing it for five years without the courts or congress knowing a thing, then that's a good time to remind the wary that you really can catch the bad guys, so you need all your tools, even if you're breaking the law and lying. It softens the blow. It's for a greater good, keeping everyone alive.
The guys in Florida weren't caught by data-mining billions of personal financial records gathered and filed over the last five years and deciding who might seem a bit suspicious, but the implication is there - it could have helped, or might help in the future. The hapless Florida Seven are paraded for us, in handcuffs and the orange jail jumpsuits, as a reminder that things you really shouldn't do sometimes just need to be done. Not that there's any direct connection in this case, but massive financial snooping must be good for us all, you see. It could help, hypothetically. And of course these guys are the masters of carefully saying there may be "no explicit connection" but there could be - Saddam and 9/11, al Qaeda and Saddam, WMD and all the rest. You just don't say it flat out. You let people decide. So the Florida arrests were a sort of PR thing - these angry and useless men may be hopeless jerks with no real connection to the bad guys - but think about it. There are bad guys out there, even if these weren't, and do you want to tie the hands of those trying to protect you by making them play by the rules, when the bad guys don't?
It's all in the timing. The financial records story was going to hit the Friday morning papers. Announce you arrested the nefarious plotters Thursday night. It's just too bad these plotters weren't very nefarious.
The Washington Post account of the Florida arrests is here, the Associated Press account of the administration's attempts to get the press to not print a word of it here, and the New York Times discussion of how the administration got the records without any judicial authorization here. It's pretty bizarre.
Who knew there was this Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT, of course), a cooperative in Brussels linking almost eight thousand banks and brokerage houses all over the world, maintaining records of billions of international financial transactions each year? That was just too tempting, and here the Post reports we've wanted access to their records since the 1990s, but it was only after September 11, 2001, that President Bush insisted he had the authority to compel them. It's that Article II thing - the president doesn't have to answer to anyone, as he can break the rules for the greater good - it's his job to do so. Yep, we're told some government and industry authorities said releasing all these detailed private records to the president's Department of the Treasury would "shake confidence in the banking system." People expect privacy. But that's too bad, and President Bush overrode all the objections and invoked his powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to "investigate, regulate or prohibit" any foreign financial transaction linked to "an unusual and extraordinary threat." September 11 changed everything, as you know.
And no one was supposed to know - Treasury officials specifically asked the New York Times and Los Angeles Times not to report on this. You just don't let the bad guys know you have all the transition records of most everything around the world and you're looking for anything you can find - you just don't reveal such things to the enemy. You don't tip them off.
But one has to assume the bad guys knew they were being watched. The real reason to keep a lid on this may have been to prevent a banking crisis - much of business relies on your competitors not knowing what money is moving where, and if the folks in Brussels are handing absolutely everything over to the US Treasury folks, no questions asked, you have to worry what information could be leaked, or what might be purchased from a low-level investigator with an adjustable rate mortgage about to skyrocket. That doesn't make you happy.
But the newspapers refused to hold back the story.
The New York Times (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."
The Los Angeles Times (Dean Baquet) - "We weighed the government's arguments carefully, but in the end we determined that it was in the public interest to publish information about the extraordinary reach of this program. It is part of the continuing national debate over the aggressive measures employed by the government."
And the Los Angeles Times reported on privacy advocates having a problem with the technology here - "link analysis." That can drag in almost anyone, like harmless folks who have routine financial dealings with "terrorist suspects." You invested in the mortgage reinsurance market and six step removed someone bought a house next door to some sneaky middle-eastern fellow who know some in Pakistan who knew someone in Kabul, and so on. It gets tricky, no outside governmental oversight body - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or some grand jury- ever monitors the subpoenas served on SWIFT.
Jeralyn Merritt does note that the New York Times published its report, the Treasury Department issued an official statement - the program is perfectly legal and these media reports will compromise it. And the Post Post reports that Stuart Levey, the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the program "is on rock solid ground." The White House? That was predictable - "We are disappointed that once again the New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is working to protect Americans."
Then there are the contradictions. Stuart Levey, the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, says the program wasn't data mining at all - a specific name had to be typed into the database request. But the Post reports this -
Maybe the Post is lying, or their sources on the inside want to make the administration look bad, and are lying. Or maybe it's true.
Someone is worried, like Congressman Markey from Massachusetts here -
But why not? This congress won't make waves. And who said anything about fighting terrorism legally?
Anyway, all this information was obtained from national security letters, those administrative subpoenas. No judge approved them.
We do a lot of that these days, as the Post noted here -
Welcome to the funhouse.
Jeralyn Merritt 's cry in the dark - "The newspapers were right to publish reports on the program. We have an Administration that operates in incredible secrecy and a President who believes he can trump the will of Congress and bypass the Courts. Given the NSA warrantless electronic surveillance program and the huge surge in the use of national security letters to obtain our phone records and more, we cannot just take them at their word."
You just have to trust they'd never let information leak, or use what they've learned for political purposes or financial gain. Have they ever misled anyone, after all?
And what about those plotters in Florida? How close were we to losing the Sears Tower in Chicago and the ten thousand souls who work there every day?
There's this -
So let's see here - they had no money, no weapons, and had no contact with actual terrorists. And they were really unhappy didn't have uniforms, which is odd, as terrorists don't wear uniforms. That defeats the whole idea. They were unclear on the concept here, but still the Attorney General said - "These homegrown terrorists might prove to be as dangerous as groups like al Qaeda." He's careful with the word "might." You're supposed to extrapolate.
As for that "might" Greg Saunders says this -
Saunders' conclusion - "You know the Bush Administration has lost its mojo when they can't even fake a terror alert well."
Yeah, well, they had to do something, as fancifully imagined by Taylor Marsh here -
Marsh - "Color me cynical, but wake up and smell the election year fear campaign. Hear Karl Rove hiss. I'm all for catching terrorists, but when you catch a bunch of wannabe jihadists in ninja clothing just arrest them. Do you need to call a glory hound press conference?"
Yes, you do. It was the banking thing.
But then there's the logic problem. It's hard to maintain the war rationale now in play - "We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here."
You just don't say, "They're here, folks." People do notice.
Spin is hard work.