This morning’s New York Times editorial on the Swift program displays the same reasoning and persuasive powers we have come to expect from this venerable institution.
And I mean that most sincerely.
The misleading claptrap begins in the very first paragraph:
There have been a handful of times in American history when the government has indeed tried to prosecute journalists for publishing things it preferred to keep quiet. None of them turned out well — from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the time when the government tried to enjoin The Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Note to Times editors: the Pentagon Papers case did not involve a prosecution of the newspapers involved, despite your implication to the contrary. It involved the government’s effort to get a court order to prevent publication of the articles in question. Obtaining such an order is much more difficult than prosecuting newspaper staffers after the fact.
If the issue had been the viability of a criminal prosecution, rather than that of a pre-publication injunction, the result might have been quite different. As Harvey Silverglate persuasively argues:
So let’s not kid ourselves: five of the nine justices would have approved of criminal prosecution of the newspapers in the Pentagon Papers case, even though a majority would not authorize a pre-publication injunction.
The editorial also stumbles with this now-familiar argument:
Terrorist groups would have had to be fairly credulous not to suspect that they would be subject to scrutiny if they moved money around through international wire transfers. In fact, a United Nations group set up to monitor Al Qaeda and the Taliban after Sept. 11 recommended in 2002 that other countries should follow the United States’ lead in monitoring suspicious transactions handled by Swift. The report is public and available on the United Nations Web site.
I am getting tired of refuting this argument again and again, so I’ll simply refer you to this post of mine with links and arguments that fully debunk it. The postcard version: Drug dealers know they are sometimes monitored by officers, but somehow I think the cops would still be upset if I showed the dope dealers where the cops are stationed with their binoculars. And if a single bureaucratically worded sentence in an obscure U.N. report was enough to tip off the terrorists, then how have we caught so many of them using this program, in the many years since that little-known report was published?
Finally, the fun part of the editorial, in which the editors write something so patently laughable that you can appreciate it even without my bitter mocking:
It is certainly unlikely that anyone who wanted to hurt the Bush administration politically would try to do so by writing about the government’s extensive efforts to make it difficult for terrorists to wire large sums of money.
From our side of the news-opinion wall, the Swift story looks like part of an alarming pattern. Ever since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has taken the necessity of heightened vigilance against terrorism and turned it into a rationale for an extraordinarily powerful executive branch, exempt from the normal checks and balances of our system of government. It has created powerful new tools of surveillance and refused, almost as a matter of principle, to use normal procedures that would acknowledge that either Congress or the courts have an oversight role.
Let me translate the bolded sentences for you:
Nobody could possibly think we’re trying to get the Bush Administration by revealing the Swift program. After all, the Swift program shows Bush is fighting terrorists, so it’s not as though the Swift program reflects badly on the Bush Administration.
But Good Lord, the Swift program sure does reflect badly on the Bush Administration!
This is the funniest thing I have read in the New York Times in, like, ever. You guys crack me up!
The funniest part is that you’re really trying to be serious.
UPDATE: Thanks very much to Power Line for the link, and for the continuing exposure of the “Blog of the Week” spot. If you’re unfamiliar with my blog, you can read more about it here. Bookmark the main page at this link.