Monday, June 26, 2006

Is the media really to blame?

It’s probably not new to anyone that the New York Times, and other media outlets, recently disclosed a federal program to investigate the financial records of suspected terrorists using records subpoenaed from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift.

Financial records have been a tried and true intelligence gathering system for many years. If you can track where a known (or suspected) terrorist is getting there money from, that can lead you to the leaders and backers of international terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda. Instead of wasting all of your resources finding and identifying the “foot soldiers,” it helps you take out the leaders behind them, crippling their ability to send more “foot soldiers” at you.

For years the government has done this through various means. They subpoenaed SWIFT and SWIFT gave them access to a bunch of records. The U.S. government, and SWIFT, have both stated that the subpoenas were legal.

Apparently there are some dissenters from with our government, though. As the New York Times reported in an editorial:

"Most Americans seem to support extraordinary measures in defense against this extraordinary threat, but some officials who have been involved in these programs have spoken to The Times about their discomfort over the legality of the government's actions and over the adequacy of oversight," Mr. Keller said. "We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them."

While the administration talks about the role of journalists in this endeavor, and rightly so, one other question comes to mind. Who leaked the story to the press in the first place, and why? Did they feel like there views weren’t being looked at seriously by the Bush administration? That’s one reason that people will leak sensitive secrets; to get their views heard.

While I can understand that frustration, simply disagreeing with a policy, and being frustrated that those in power aren’t doing what you think they should do, is not enough of a reason to put our ability to gather intelligence safely, and securely, at risk. By exposing the ways we gain intelligence data, it only compromises our ability to gain more data through the same sources. In some cases, where the sources are human, it puts their lives in danger.

Now, this is not “human intelligence.” It’s technology. How much of an impact it will have is yet to be seen. But if a terrorist cell knows that it will be tracked if it continues to use one method of money laundering (and let’s face it, that’s what this is), it will simply change tactics to less traceable, if more inconvenient, methods.

It seems to me that while the media deserves some of the blame, those who betrayed their oaths and leaked the story in the first place have much more to answer for.

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