Wednesday, April 19, 2006

And The Pulitzer Goes To...

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.


Paul said...

Well, Darren, I have to respectfully -- and strenuously -- disagree with you about the Pulitzers (Arafat and Carter winning Nobels is a joke, but that's neither here nor there).

I think, but I could be wrong, that Dana Priest is a guy. Maybe not, but I always thought he was.

Both these stories brought to light programs the government had put in place outside the checks and balances required by the Constitution to monitor such activity (wiretapping and suspect imprisonment).

True, the initial reporting on the wiretapping was incomplete, but it revealed an alarming step taken by the executive branch without knowledge or approval by ANY OTHER facet of our government, when it was clear that those other facets were more than willing at the time this program was enacted to give the executive branch almost carte blanche power to fight terrorism.

Wiretapping American citizens without any kind of court oversight, without any kind of warrant (even a retroactive one, like can be used in the FISA court) is extremely troubling, and if the press has no other purpose, it is to pry light from the darkness of state secrets, when those secrets clearly are in violation of that government's own laws.

The secret prisons are even more troublesome, in that they fit a pattern of this administration's flirtation with doing away with the Genevea Conventions. The thing that makes us different from and better than the terrorists and dictatorships we have fought is that we have protections in place for their prisoners. We don't behead them or kidnap innocent civilians and torture and kill them in secret prisons.

Except we do. We did in Afghanistan, we did at Abu Ghraib, and it's clear these events went on with knowledge of high-ranking officials who developed a culture of tolerance of such behavior with the support of statements made by Bush and Rumsfeld.

It's pretty clear, as well, that some of those who died in our prisons were noting more than Iraqi and Afghan civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were arrested.

When we begin housing suspects -- and they're still suspects until somebody convicts them -- in secret, particularly when we've shown a disturbing proclivity for torturing and killing our prisoners, is it not time for someone to shed light here, to say, "Wait! Should this be done? Shouldn't we have a debate about this? Isn't this what our country is about?"

Both stories shed light on situations within our government that threatened the rights and safety of potentially innocent people. It is an obviously false comparison to use the breaking of Japanese and German codes, considering breaking those codes did not require civil liberties violations, torture or murder. A more accurate comparison to what is happening today would be FDR's internmant camps for Japanese Americans or Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Likewise, you falsely split the political spectrum into two groups: "the rational people like me who think security is paramount to the survival of our society" or "everyone else who thinks Bush is Hitler."

How about those of us in the middle, who agree with Benjamin Franklin that to risk liberty for a little more security forfeits our right to both? What about those of us who don't trust the federal government to do what's best for us, the foundation of modern (until recently) conservatism? If I don't trust government to raise my children, provide my health care or make the right decisions about my property, then why should I trust it when it says, "Trust us! We should be able to conduct these wiretaps with absolutely no court supervision!" or "Trust us! The people in the secret prisons are bad men who won't be tortured or killed!"

I grant that the administration should be given a broad hand to fight terrorism. But no administration should be able to wiretap at will and detain prisoners in secret camps without answering to somebody, somewhere.

That's why those awards were given for those stories. Because the wartime press illuminated closely guarded secrets that needed to be debated in public, lest we lose a little more freedom and step that much closer to the regimes we're fighting.

Darren Duvall said...


First off, thanks for commenting and if you're the Paul I think you are, where's the blog, dude? I'm missin' it and so are others.

Second, disagreement is not only fine but welcome.

Dana Priest is in fact, not a dude. Check out her Wikipedia entry. I wasn't sure myself so I Googled it before I wrote the article.

The reason the EB can have a warrentless surveillance program is that Signals Intelligenece is a military function that comes under the control of the President as Commander-in-Chief. No FISA warrant is needed for surveillance of an agent of a foreign power, this was upheld in the Truong case and many others. When Aldrich Ames' house was covertly entered and he was covertly surveiled under the Clinton administration, no FISA warrant was sought, nor was one needed. The President is on fairly firm legal ground here, if the sought communication is for agents of a foreign power.

Another BS aspect of the Lichtblau and Risen article was the conflation of FBI surveillance of anti-war groups with this other surveillance program. These are two separate and unrelated issues that, when combined, have the desired effect of "the government is spying on you." I had forgotten about that little oversight-slash-journalistic fillip until now. 'FBI surveillance' sounds ominous but the listed 'surveillance' amounts to nothing more than sending undercover agents to the rallies and finding out what was going on there. There is no listing of wiretaps, but since that surveillance is in the same article as the warrantless, heretofore secret, program, the implication is that anti-war groups are being warrantlessly wiretapped.

Is the distinction clear? Hardly. But it'll get you a Pulitzer.

The Geneva Conventions actually ARE archaic in part and intended for a time when conscript armies fought one another in State-on-State warfare. The assumption was that the conscripts did not necessarily share the principles of the state and may have been forced to fight under threat of imprisonment at home. This is not the case when a State is fighting a non-State actor like Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and other factions do not follow any tenets of the Geneva Conventions -- no uniforms, no commanding officers, no quarter, the intentionally target civilians and they use schools and mosques as fighting positions. This does not mean that our responsibility to not do those things is therefore abrogated as well, just that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners is not entirely clear.

Have there been abuses? Yes, undoubtedly. Is that the common policy of the United States? Demonstrably no. We have detained tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which a handful have died and less than 500 reside in Guantanamo.

So what do we do with the really Big Fish of Al Qaeda? This is the question to which I can't seem to find anyone to provide an answer. If they weren't Mirandized, or if all the rules of evidence weren't followed, it's questionable whether they can be convicted in a US Court. They have been without counsel for, in some cases, years. None of their confessions would stand muster against a second-year law student much less the folks at the ACLU. They exist in limbo, in part because their actions are very much beyond the framework of our common criminal law, and half-in, half-out of our legal system. We can't shoot them in the back of the head, and we can't bring them back here because the evidentiary rules of US Courts could demand the we reveal means and methods or set the prisoner free. Catch-22. There is no conventional process to deal with this.

The point not to miss in all of this is that the whole process of their twilight existance began when they decided, likely some Friday after prayers, that people in the US had to pay. We didn't simply start kidnapping people at random in Pakistan and Afghanistan and incarcerating them, chances are pretty good that if you get filtered out finally into a CIA prison or Guantanamo, you've made it through a long, multi-step screening process, the validity of which is proven in part by the killing or capturing of ex-Gitmo detainees on the battlefield in Afghanistan after their release.

I'm glad to see that Mary McCarthy has been fired from the CIA and hope that further ramifications of her leaks will follow her. If Martha Stewart can go to jail, so can Ms. McCarthy.

Just because I didn't fill in the entire spectrum of political viewpoints doesn't mean I don't understand that there are multiple viewpoints on these issues. I had a third group in there, for people already troubled by the PATRIOT Act.

The Ben Franklin quote is lovely but can be easily taken to extreme and mis-applied, and may not even be from Ben Frankin himself. Here is a really succint article from Pete DuPont in the WSJ that you should consider if you want to quote Non-Gentle Ben. Franklin also said, "Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."

You're completely glossing over the fact that the programs were not secret to avoid government oversight, they were secret to keep the programs secret. If you choose to respond, can you explain why the potential loss of this method of surveillance is outwieghed by the public's need to know? And if the program is so heinous, why hasn't Congress defunded it, and why haven't the now-broader cross-section of Legislative lawmakers now-briefed called for it to end? Isn't it just a little bit possible that the program was serving the public good in a covert fashion before being reported? Is there no facet of government that you believe should be secret on any level?