Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How revealing

As predictable as ever, right-wingnuttia is all aflutter with charges that the New York Times damaged national security by revealing that the Bush administration, in defiance of federal statutes, has been spying on American citizens without warrants.

It always helps, of course, when President Bush himself makes that charge on national television:
My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. You've got to understand -- and I hope the American people understand -- there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they're very dangerous. And the discussion about how we try to find them will enable them to adjust.

Acting on cue, the right-wing Wurlitzer is rumbling into action. Helping lead the charge, as always, is the Washington Times, which headlined its lead story today: "Bush calls leak 'shameful'".

Even before Bush spoke, right-wing blognuttia was pushing this line, including such luminaries as PowerLine and Michelle Malkin, plus the usual cast of thousands. Similarly, right-wing columnists like NRO's James S. Robbins weighed in along identical lines.

But then, remember the incident that Bush used to illustrate the problem in his press conference:
Let me give you an example about my concerns about letting the enemy know what may or may not be happening. In the late 1990s, our government was following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone. And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak. And guess what happened? Saddam -- Osama bin Laden changed his behavior. He began to change how he communicated.

... And again, I want to repeat what I said about Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered the attack that killed 3,000 Americans. We were listening to him. He was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper -- somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed. I don't know how I can make the point more clear that any time we give up -- and this is before they attacked us, by the way -- revealing sources, methods, and what we use the information for simply says to the enemy: change.

What Bush conveniently neglected to mention to his audience was that it wasn't the New York Times, nor any other organ of the "mainstream media," that published this information.

It was the Washington Times.

As I have pointed out several times, this incident was described in some detail in Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon's The Age of Sacred Terror, both having worked on counterterrorism in the Clinton administration.

According to Benjamin and Simon, the turning point when al-Qaeda became America's greatest enemy was not on Sept. 11, 2001, but rather on Aug. 20, 1998 -- the day President Clinton launched missile strikes against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and the Sudan, the latter being a pharmaceutical plant at al-Shifa that was being used to develop chemical weapons. From pp. 260-261:
For a brief moment, the operation appeared to be a qualified success. Al-Shifa was destroyed. Six terrorist camps were hit and about sixty people were killed, many of them Pakistani militants training for action in Kashmir. The Tomahawks missed bin Laden and the other senior al-Qaeda leaders by a couple of hours. This in itself was not a great surprise: no one involved has any illusions about the chances of hitting the target at exactly the right time. The White House recognized that the strike would not stop any attacks that were in the pipeline, but it might forestall the initiation of new operations as the organization's leaders went to ground.

The months that followed, however, were a nightmare. The press picked apart the administration's case for striking al-Shifa, and controversy erupted over whether Clinton was trying to "wag the dog," that is, distract the public from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Washington Times -- the capital's unabashed right-wing newspaper, which consistently has the best sources in the intelligence world and the least compunction about leaking -- ran a story mentioning that bin Laden "keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones." Bin Laden stopped using the satellite phone instantly. The al-Qaeda leader was not eager to court the fate of Djokar Dudayev, the Chechen insurgent leader who was killed by a Russian air defense suppression missile that homed in on its target using his satellite phone signal. When bin Laden stopped using the phone and let his aides do the calling, the United States lost its best chance to find him.

According to a later Washington Post report, the Washington Times piece was in fact later determined to be "a major intelligence setback."

But did any of you hear any of these right-wing pundits now braying "treason" at the New York Times complaining back in 1998, when the Washington Times in fact genuinely harmed our national security interests, in a way that later contributed to thousands of American deaths?

Er, no. They were all too busy playing the same damned "wag the dog" game.

Funny how things work over there in Conservative Land. If a conservative mouthpiece actually harms national security in the pursuit of attacking a liberal president or policy, well, then, that's just good old hardball politics. Just ask Valerie Plame.

And besides, you can always just give it a few years. Then, when everyone's forgotten who actually caused this security breach and why, a smart, Orwellian conservative figurehead can always use the incident later to bash the "mainstream media" for doing its job.

On the other hand, if the mainstream media catches a conservative president breaking the law by spying on American citizens, then suddenly the alarms are being sounded about the press harming national security (mostly under a bunch of scenarios stolen from bad TV scripts).

Nice racket.

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