My kids love prizes and awards. The big brainwave we had for The Boy's recent birthday was giving little trophies as part of the goodie bag. We built and raced these little AA-powered Tamiya race cars, and everyone got a trophy. I suppose it's part of the feel-good, self-esteem culture we have, but it put smiles on kids' faces and when you're a kid, getting the prize is the big thing. Shoot, my son proudly displays my brother's Little League trophy from 1978. Kids love to win prizes, but when you become an adult (unless you're a world-class athlete), the primacy of the prize seems to diminish.
It's becoming less and less important to me who wins prizes these days, because the things you have to do to win them seem less about what you do than which cause you support. When prize committees stop rewarding work and start Sending A Message, it's time to quit paying attention to them.
I mean, take Yasir Arafat, the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
(Pardon me while I do the same double-take I do whenever I read that. *mind boggles* OK, I'm back.)
Given the current situation in the Middle East, and the right mess Arafat led his political party into (not to mention the theft of funds to help what can easily be considered among the most destitute group in the world), now we have Hamas as the leader of the Palestinian Authority and peace seems as far away as it ever has. Iran doesn't need to fire missiles into Israel when it's clients Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas can just hand-deliver warheads to falafel stands in downtown Tel Aviv. Isn't this kind of like giving the 1999 Lifetime Business Ethics Award to Andy Fastow, Jeff Skilling and Ken May? And don't get me started on Jimmy Carter. Good man, very principled, but not noted for foreign policy skill besides being able to get an Israeli who wanted peace and an Egyptian who wanted peace to sign a peace accord, in part by bribing the crap out of both parties ever since. The Nobel Prizes have an undeniable political tint these days, which makes them increasingly unserious in my mind.
So when Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times share the Pulitzer for National Reporting, pardon me while I swallow my gorge. They got someone at NSA to spill one of the most secret programs in the nation. Approaching the White House for comment, the WH asked them in the interest of national security to not report their findings. They didn't, at least until James Risen had his book written, then the New York Times "had" to report the story, since Risen was going to reveal national secrets in any event. I actually bought Risen's book, and it's in the hopper for reading at some point, but the thing that really galls me (besides all the self-righteous harrumphing and demand for an investigation into the Plame affair from the NYT, followed by kudos (and now a Pulitzer!) for revealing an actual secret) is that the reporting was horrifically incomplete. They didn't reveal what actually was happening, just that something was happening. They compromised national security by just by reporting the program, but not enough to do anything but raise spectres of faceless dudes in off-the-rack suits and clip-on ties pawing through your email and IM logs.
Is this a pen register-trap-and-trace? An automated text searcher? Are the communications recorded? If so, for how long? How much of the Internet is involved? Are strictly domestic communications involved? How about if a US party initiates contact, is that it? Hmmmm? Lichtblau and Risen offer only Cheshire cat smiles and silently polish their Pulitzers. Their reporting amounts to nothing more than a Rorschach test for the reader's feelings about government. If you, like me, think that security is the most basic human right, reading about this only confirms what you hoped was going on anyway. If you think Chimpy McBushHitler is really that interested in all of your comments and IMs about what a jerk he is and is going to come punish you in some way (and to be fair, the government can punish you like few others), it's intimidating to say the least. And infuriating, I would imagine, if you didn't like the PATRIOT Act to begin with.
Lichtblau and Risen's reporting is enough to raise questions, and the answers are fill-in-the-blanks with your worst fears or best expectations. The fact that international calls and 'net traffic routed through US switches and routers can be intercepted is enough to make it harder for us to track terrorist communications, and this current crop of n'er-do-wells is not stupid. Their reporting is the equivalent of announcing in 1942 that the US had broken the Japanese Naval Codes, or that the British had automated the cracking of three-rotor Enigma codes used by the Germans. THAT the breach has been made is enough to make smart conspirators change their SOP, and with easily downloadable tools like PGP, cracking those messages is exponentially harder. The simple thing is to use lines that are not routed through the US and are therefore (presumably) much less easy for the US to intercept.
Dana Priest of the Washington Post won the Pulitzer for Beat Reporting, she was the one who published the Most Secret Story of the Year, until the NYT dropped the bombshell about the NSA. Her revelation was about the CIA's network of secret prisons to keep high-value folks like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed off the radar. Personally, I could care less if the guy is dead in a ditch somewhere after having every neuron sucked dry of each scintilla of information about Al Qaeda's networks and operations. If the planner of 9/11 ever breathes free air again, it's too soon for me. That he's kept free from people who intend to provide him the best defense in an American court that money can buy is good enough.
The only thing that elevates Priest's story above Lichtblau and Risen's in my mind is that is has a Beginning and a Middle and somewhat of an End. Lichtblau and Risen's story only has a Beginning, and the Beginning was damage enough, thank you very little. I honestly fail to see the overarching public good served in either story, especially for the NYT story given the very gray area that FISA occupies with respect to the Constitutional powers and duties of the Office of the President. Every President beginning with Carter right after FISA was signed has generated an Executive Order that says, in essence, "I reserve the right to ignore that law when necessary, since I'm the President and the FISA statute is in the Gray Zone." And given the still-opaque nature of how the warrantless program works, the reporting doesn't provide any complete answers, just raises unhelpful questions that the President can't address without further compromising national security. It may be an important story, it may not. But given that further answers can't be forthcoming without committing more felonies, it just sits eating like acid at the foundations of public trust.
Keep your prizes, people. If that's what it takes to win, it doesn't sound like a game I want to be played. And I hope that somewhere down the road, the leakers of two of the most secret things in the US Government get a number and some custom jumpsuits to remind them of their roles in the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes, for the rest of their natural lives.
UPDATE 4/24/06: The alleged leaker of the Dana Priest article, Mary O. McCarthy, has been fired from her CIA job after apparently confessing to being Priest's source. She was an analyst assigned to the CIA's Inspector General's office, doubly ironic because the IG's office is where whistleblowers are supposed to go first. No matter how you spin it, the WaPo is not a part of any government oversight system.
The only government the CIA seems capable of bringing down anymore is our own.
A good, if long, article in Commentary regarding the New York Times article, the NSA program and the Espionage Act of 1950. Summary: if the NYT goes to court, they'll lose.