Posts about Terrorism

The arithmetic of terror

This is what life has come to: When news of the foiled London terror plot came out, I tried to parse today’s date: August 10 over there is 10/8/06. So I continued that string and wondered whether I should avoid being in a New York tunnel at 12 or 4.

With one eye

Arianna Huffington writes a fascinating and rave review of Oliver Stone’s 9/11, warning that people will see in it what they want.

The NORAD tapes

Vanity Fair has a heckuva story, listening to the complete NORAD tapes from 9/11 and — in a nice web move — interspersing links to let you listen online.

Fearing for Israel

I am coming to fear for the fate of Israel. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, are testing the world to see whether they can, in the dream of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wipe Israel off the face of the map. And the world is not responding. Oh, we’re hearing calls for a cease-fire — which leaves Hezbollah still rewarded for its aggression — but even so, no one is stepping up to stand in the way of that fire. From much of Europe and the American left, we’re hearing talk about Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” in what I think is just the PC way to oppose Israel.

Hear David Rowan, editor of London’s Jewish Chronicle, in The Times of London:

Had Hezbollah’s two main sponsors cast any doubt on their determination to wipe Israel off the map, maybe the current military onslaught would have been less acceptable to the 80 or 90 per cent of Israeli voters who last week offered Olmert their backing. Yet for all Olmert’s bold pledges to “destroy every terrorist infrastructure everywhere”, if his military commanders continue to act with only American and wavering British governmental support, while showing the world too little apparent concern for Lebanese civilian deaths, the worry here is that he will only weaken further his nation’s strategic interests, and its longer-term security, as fashionable discourse from talk show to dinner party questions ever more openly Israel’s moral right to exist.

Let that last phrase echo for a moment: “fashionable discourse from talk show to dinner party questions ever more openly Israel’s moral right to exist.”

The reason Israel must exist is Europe. I am delighted to see Timothy Garton Ash say just that in an eloquent and wise column in today’s Guardian.

Yet observing European responses to the current conflict, I want to insist on Europe’s own strong claim to be among the earliest causes. The Russian pogroms of 1881; the French mob chanting “à bas les juifs” as Captain Dreyfus was stripped of his epaulettes at the École Militaire; the festering anti-semitism of Austria around 1900, shaping the young Adolf Hitler; all the way to the Holocaust of European Jewry and the waves of anti-semitism that convulsed parts of Europe in its immediate aftermath. It was that history of increasingly radical European rejection, from the 1880s to the 1940s, that produced the driving force for political Zionism, Jewish emigration to Palestine and eventually the creation of the state of Israel. . . .

Does it follow that Europeans have a special obligation to get involved in trying to secure a peace settlement in which the state of Israel can live in secure frontiers next to a viable Palestinian state? I think it does. . . . Even if you don’t accept this argument from historical and moral responsibility, Europe’s vital interests are plainly at stake: oil, nuclear proliferation and the potential reaction among our alienated Muslim minorities, to name but three. . .

How Europeans speak and write about the position of the Jews in the region to which Europeans drove them is also a matter of our own self-definition. We should weigh every word.

If we — Americans and Europeans, liberals and conservatives — allow Israel as a safe haven and as a nation to be destroyed, whether by ceaseless terrorism or by Iranian nuclear bomb, and if we allow the world to continue to be terrorized by the fanatics who now attack not only Israel but also other nations, then this will be the shameful legacy of our generation.

: LATER: I know it may be red meat to some of you, but see also John Podhoretz’ column this week on PC war:

What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?

What if the universalist idea of liberal democracy – the idea that all people are created equal – has sunk in so deeply that we no longer assign special value to the lives and interests of our own people as opposed to those in other countries?

What if this triumph of universalism is demonstrated by the Left’s insistence that American and Israeli military actions marked by an extraordinary concern for preventing civilian casualties are in fact unacceptably brutal? And is also apparent in the Right’s claim that a war against a country has nothing to do with the people but only with that country’s leaders?

Can any war be won when this is the nature of the discussion in the countries fighting the war? Can any war be won when one of the combatants voluntarily limits itself in this manner?

Could World War II have been won by Britain and the United States if the two countries did not have it in them to firebomb Dresden and nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? . . .

s this the horrifying paradox of 21st century warfare? If Israel and the United States cannot be defeated militarily in any conventional sense, have our foes discovered a new way to win? Are they seeking victory through demoralization alone – by daring us to match them in barbarity and knowing we will fail?

Are we becoming unwitting participants in their victory and our defeat? Can it be that the moral greatness of our civilization – its astonishing focus on the value of the individual above all – is endangering the future of our civilization as well?

Haven’t we learned that the other side — those extremists — use what’s best about us against us? Haven’t we learned that we have a common foe?

: And someone just told me to look up a column by Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, that appeared in the New York Observer more than four years ago warning harshly of the second Holocaust. Here is a quote from an edited version that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

We have to examine the dynamic going on in the mind of Europe at this moment: a dynamic that suggests that Europeans, on some deep if not entirely conscious level, are willing to be complicit in the murder of the Jews again. . . .

And so there is a need to blame someone else for the shame of “European civilization.” To blame the victim. To blame the Jews. The more European nations can focus one-sidedly on the Israeli response to terror and not to the terror itself, the more they can portray the Jews as the real villains, the more salve to their collective conscience for their complicity in collective mass murder in the past. . . .

If Israel were to act with true ruthlessness to end the suicide bombings, they would tell the prospective bombers – who go to their deaths expecting that their families will celebrate their mass murders with a subsidized party and reap lucrative financial rewards courtesy of the Saudis and Saddam – that their families instead will share the exact same fate of the people the bombers blow up. That might put a crimp into the recruiting and the partying over dead Jewish children. But the Israelis won’t do that, and that is why there’s likely to be a second Holocaust. Not because the Israelis are acting without restraint, but because they are, so far, still acting with restraint despite the massacres making their country uninhabitable.

Rosenbaum wrote a followup column in this week’s March in the Observer.

: And now see Howard Kurtz contemplating why liberal bloggers seem to be saying so little about Israel.

Defeating their ideas

In an incredible case of missing the point, MPs took Tony Blair to task for not doing enough to “win the hearts and minds” of British Muslims after, the Guardian reports, a Times poll revealed that 13 percent of Muslims there think of the 7/7 bombers as martyrs and 16 percent think the attacks were wrong but the cause was right — cause? what cause? — while another poll found that 6 percent of young Muslims thought the bombings were justified.

And it’s up to Tony Blair to win their hearts and minds? How about it’s up to their parents and clergy to teach them civility and law.

“The government can’t defeat this alone. You’ve got to defeat the ideas, and the completely false sense of grievance against the west,” Mr Blair told MPs.

“You can’t defeat the ideology of extremist Islam by saying we half agree with your grievances but you’re wrong to deal with it that way – you have to defeat it entirely.

“It’s a global movement with an ideology, not a British movement. There’s a reason why people are being picked up in Canada, why people were picked up in Spain even after the troops were withdrawn.”

Mr Blair insisted that preventing terrorism was not just down to the government, but was also the responsibility of community leaders.

Amen to that.

: In a commentary in The Times of London former candidate for Parliament Ali Miraj writes:

British Muslims must share responsibility for confronting and destroying the cancer in their midst. Both Muslims (56 per cent) and non-Muslims (49 per cent) feel that the Government is not doing enough to combat extremism in the Muslim community.

While I agree that the Government has been ineffectual in its response to the Abu Hamzas and Omar Bakris, it is imperative that Muslims reverse the victim mentality that has gripped them. It is this that allows extremism to fester.

More than 80 per cent of those polled feel it is unacceptable for the police to view Muslims with greater suspicion on the ground that the 7/7 bombers shared their faith. But what do British Muslims expect? I would rather be stopped and searched to prevent a terrorist attack than not on the ground of political correctness.

‘When and why I reveal secrets’

I want to see the editor of a major U.S. newspaper who is covering and uncovering classified government antiterrorism programs write a piece under the headline: “When and why I will reveal secrets.” For I have not yet seen a satisfactory answer to that obvious and essential question in any of the many letters and editorials those editors have been writing lately. If journalism is about upholding standards, then let’s know what those standards are.

It’s not a hard piece to write, I think. Begin here:

I will reveal a secret government program when I can show that it violates the law or abuses the power given under that law. I will reveal such a program when I can demonstrate that it is dangerously ineffective or incompetent in its design or execution. And I will not reveal such secrets unless I can show a compelling need to know and newsworthiness, and unless I can show that doing so will not put innocent lives and welfare at risk. If revealing secrets puts the nation, its agents, or soldiers at risk, I will not reveal them.

That’s a start. I do hope these editors edit and amend that because we should know what their standards are so we can better judge both their reporting and their critics.

Instead, in today’s joint oped from NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and LA Times Editor Dean Baquet, we see a continuation of the theme of Keller’s last latter (my reaction to that here), which doesn’t so much say why they revealed the secrets but instead argues why their critics are wrong to complain.

They say that it is right and necessary for the press to report on what government is doing — and, of course, I agree — but they do not address the limits of that, other than to say that they know their limits and have not revealed other secrets in the past. So shouldn’t we know those limits as well? For if we don’t, then aren’t we merely trading blind faith in politicians, properly balanced by the press, with blind faith in editors, balanced by nothing more than government attacks — and now, perhaps, bloggers? Here’s how it works now: The editors reveal; the politicians accuse them of everything from jeopardizing programs to risking national security to committing treason; the editors and their defenders shoot back at the politicians. And we in the public are left without a roadmap: This government secret had to be revealed because…. This government secret could not be revealed because…. Shouldn’t the editors give us that map?

In his last letter, Keller tried to argue that it was not the job of The Times to judge the programs’ legality or effectiveness. Yet — I asked before — isn’t the decision about whether to violate the government secrets and reveal the workings of the program based on that very sort of judgment? Otherwise, why was the secret revealed? What made it necessary and newsworthy? Was it because the program was illegal or abusive or incompetent or dangerous? Where is the standard?

The Times editorial this week (not from Keller, of course), continued the specious argument made by Keller and then by Times op-ed writers Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey that the terrorists — and, one assumes, a clueful public — already knew that the government was tracing financial transactions — wisely — to both find terrorists and cut them off from their resources. So if everyone already knew it, they argue, then what’s the harm of the disclosure? I’ll respond: If everybody already knew it, then where’s the news value? If we all knew that the government was tracking transactions — and that it was legal and effective — then what is the point in revealing the specifics of the program? And what is the risk? Once again: What made this necessary and newsworthy? Where is the standard?

In today’s letter, Keller and Baquet make more arguments worth addressing.

They argue that they and their staffs are “not neutral in the struggle against terrorism.” Well, I would hope that needn’t be said. But perhaps it should be. Stipulated.

They talk about the special role of the press:

We apply the principles of journalism individually as editors of independent newspapers. We agree, however, on some basics about the immense responsibility the press has been given by the inventors of the country. . . .

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, in the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the government from suppressing the secret Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people.”

As that sliver of judicial history reminds us, the conflict between the government’s passion for secrecy and the press’s drive to reveal is not of recent origin.

But as they themselves make clear, it is not the press’ role to reveal everything it knows. There are limits. There are standards. So again: What are they?

And let’s be clear that the freedom and responsibility supposedly given to the press was truly given to the people. The press itself has no special franchise on that freedom. Indeed, if the press is a check on government, then the people — not the government — is the rightful check on the press. So the people deserve to know not only how government operates in our name but how the press operates in our name.

They continue:

Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price.

In recent years our papers have brought you a great deal of information the White House never intended for you to know — classified secrets about the questionable intelligence that led the country to war in Iraq, about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the transfer of suspects to countries that are not squeamish about using torture, about eavesdropping without warrants.

Yes, of course, it is the job of journalists to help us judge our government’s work. But, of course, secrecy puts limits on that. The list that follows is, well, ironic, since some of the questionable intelligence that led the country to war came from The Times. And I’ll get to the “eavesdropping” in a moment. They continue:

As Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, asked recently in the pages of that newspaper: “You may have been shocked by these revelations, or not at all disturbed by them, but would you have preferred not to know them at all? If a war is being waged in America’s name, shouldn’t Americans understand how it is being waged?”

Well, I’d also rather that my enemies not know how that war is being waged.

Next, Keller and Baquet ask: “How do we, as editors, reconcile the obligation to inform with the instinct to protect?” Good question. But they answer it not with principles, with standards, but instead with process described generically: how tips come in, how reporters report, how conversations occur with government officials in charge of these programs. But we still are not told why this secret is a story and that one is not. They do not reveal their judgment. They say:

Finally, we weigh the merits of publishing against the risks of publishing. There is no magic formula, no neat metric for either the public’s interest or the dangers of publishing sensitive information.

I’m not asking for a magic formula. I am asking for principles. Here’s their kicker:

We make our best judgment.

In short: Trust us.

When we come down in favor of publishing, of course, everyone hears about it. Few people are aware when we decide to hold an article. But each of us, in the past few years, has had the experience of withholding or delaying articles when the administration convinced us that the risk of publication outweighed the benefits. Probably the most discussed instance was The New York Times’s decision to hold its article on telephone eavesdropping for more than a year, until editors felt that further reporting had whittled away the administration’s case for secrecy.

And the public — checking the press — has asked again and again why that story was too dangerous to reveal for a year and then suddenly OK to reveal. The only answer so far: Trust us.

They then list other stories they have not revealed — not explaining why — and conclude:

We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices — to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.

Nor, gentlemen, is it one that we the people wholly surrender to you, the press.

That is why we deserve to know more about your standards and your process. That is not only because we have a right to know what you do In Nomine Publicoin nomen publicus [please do correct my automated Latin; thanks for the correction] but also because we, too, have a voice that matters. Many people questioned Judith Miller’s WMD reporting and think how much better it would have been if those questions had been heard and answered. Note that USA Today just backed off elements of its NSA telephone story, after the cat was out of the bag. And about the NSA telephone program, I was not alone suggesting that this “eavesdropping,” as The Times calls it — a purposely loaded word that implies spooks are listening in on our conversations — was more about data mining to find patterns and thus, we hope, anomalies than to hear about who’s having an affair. In both the NSA phone and the Swift banking programs, it seems apparent that you need to analyze a body of data to find the outliers who may be worth investigating. This isn’t as simple as it is being portrayed: as another violation of our individual privacy. I don’t consider the analysis of the aggregated data to which I contribute with my individual actions a violation of my privacy. And if this catches or stops terrorists — as many, including the 9/11 Commission, believe that tracking and analyzing financial transactions can do — then I say it is worth it. But neither is the questioning of these programs as simple as it is being portrayed; it’s not treason.

That is the sort of substantive discussion we should be having. Instead, we are stuck in a simplistic did-not/did-too shouting match in which the papers reveal what they choose to reveal, and then the politicians call names, and then the papers respond to those names — instead of discussing the real questions and issues. It is up to the editors, I think, to set that tone. They have the ability and I suggest they start by writing pieces under the headline above: When and why will you reveal secrets?

: LATER: See Greg Sargent at Eat the Press on the sorry state of the conversation. He says that these editors are doing nothing but defending themselves against “wildly irrational” and “profoundly demented” charges. Yes, which is why I say they should be setting the agenda for this conversation based on their own principles and standards. See above.

: On Meet the Press just now, William Safire answers the rhetorical question, ‘Who elected the press to decide what stays secret?’ with the answer, ‘The founding fathers did.’ This sense of holy constitutional entitlement weakens when we are all, as we should be, the press.

Tell all

At tonight’s mixer for PaidContent (more on that in a minute), Arthur Sulzberger was interviewed by Rafat Ali and was asked about the impact of online news on stories such as the current terrorism intelligence program on banking. Reference was made to the Pentagon Papers. Sulzberger explained that back then, because the publication went on over time, the government could see prior restraint against The Times. But today, the entire document could be put up in a moment. So they could not come after a news organization now seeing prior restraint. But then he added as a punchline that got a laugh, “treason? — yes.”

I imagined that all across America at just that moment, bloggers and editorial writers for the New York Post stuck their noses up over their copies of Ann Coulter’s latest as their eyes twinkled and their fingers twitched.

I have been mulling over the public letter from Bill Keller justifying The Times’ outing of the banking intelligence program. I think there’s an underlying logic to the letter that’s worth poking. Keller says it is not The Times’ role to judge the program — yet, I’d argue, the decision to out it is, inevitably, a judgment. To do so is to say that the program is illegal or wrong or ineffective; there has to be some reason to expose it, knowing it is secret. Keller writes:

The Administration case for holding the story had two parts, roughly speaking: first that the program is good — that it is legal, that there are safeguards against abuse of privacy, and that it has been valuable in deterring and prosecuting terrorists. And, second, that exposing this program would put its usefulness at risk.

It’s not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don’t know about it.

So that is saying that we deserve to know everything, absolutely everything. As a worshiper of speech protected by the First Amendment and of transparency as the new virtue of journalism and of reporting as a pillar of a free society, you’d think I’d be applauding that sentiment. It sounds good. But I don’t think it washes in real life. Newspapers know plenty they choose not to reveal: from troop locations to undercover cops’ identities to corporate moves that affect shareholders (you can be reporters get the same leaks blogs do). If they revealed all they knew at all times on all subjects, that would be a defensible model — ‘If we know it, you know it.’ But they keep secrets so they get secrets and also to act responsibly. So this notion that not telling us about the banking program preempts the roles of lawmakers, judges, and voters is, well, somewhat specious.

And though The Times says it is not to judge the program’s legality or effectiveness, Keller goes on to say that they weighed the government’s contention that exposing it would endanger it and they rejected that. So they did, indeed, make a most crucial judgment about the program. The Times further rejects the government’s contention that this would tip off terrorists to change their ways. So how does The Times know it has not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Keller also says, “The press and the government generally start out from opposite corners in such cases. The government would like us to publish only the official line, and some of our elected leaders tend to view anything else as harmful to the national interest.” That may be fair in many cases, but not in all. This implies that all acts of government are spin. Sometimes, they actually are in the public interest. And acting against that is not always in the public interest. Yes, the role of the press is essentially adversarial. But the government and the press are not the only players in this drama and need not always be adversarial. There are other guys out there murdering us who also play a role. They are the enemy of us all.

What’s more amazing about Keller’s letter in some ways is its glibness. He throws off a one-liner not unlike his proprietor’s, above:

Some of the incoming mail quotes the angry words of conservative bloggers and TV or radio pundits who say that drawing attention to the government’s anti-terror measures is unpatriotic and dangerous. (I could ask, if that’s the case, why they are drawing so much attention to the story themselves by yelling about it on the airwaves and the Internet.)

Now that’s patently ridiculous. Glenn Reynolds says it indicates that “Keller isn’t very bright, or else he thinks you’re not.” Yes, The Times isn’t really published until bloggers link to it.

Finally, Keller argues that the press has a special place in society:

It’s an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.

Jay Rosen wrote in 2004:

The press doesn’t own journalism, entirely. And Big Media doesn’t entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn’t. These things were always true.

Yes, we need not only a press but also an open society of empowered citizens to balance the power of those we elect. But we also do elect those people to make judgments on our behalf. And we don’t — and should not — elect the members of the press who question them.

So when you get right down to it, this is a disagreement about what’s right. Keller is cloaking his decision in the First Amendment and the power of the press. George Bush wrapped his obvious disagreement around doing harm to the nation and our war on terror and others did go so far as to label it treason.

My bottom line, not that it matters: The government has long and and long been urged to follow the cut off the money to terrorists to both starve and uncover them. I wholly endorse that. I assumed that they were doing precisely what The Times is shocked that they were doing: following transactions. I don’t think it’s known that the program is either illegal or ineffective. But I also think it is possible enough that revealing its existence can do the program and the nation harm, so I would not have revealed it.

If only….

I wish the death of Iraq’s murderer-in-chief would make a difference but I fear that, as a Times columnist I can’t link to said the other day, we’re no longer fighting his insurgency. It’s worse. We’re fighting anarchy.

: Glenn Reynolds says: “Is it just me, or is the Middle East a lot like 7th Grade with RPGs?”