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Counterterrorism and the press

Guest Blogger

Law enforcement officials moved with remarkable speed to find and arrest a suspect in the failed Times Square car bombing. Their success throws a spotlight on the clandestine tools used in counterterrorism operations. Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, worries that the press compromises the government's effectiveness in tracking suspects by publishing its secret tactics. In "Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law," to be published this month by W.W. Norton, Schoenfeld probes the conflict between national security and First Amendment rights.

By Gabriel Schoenfeld

A terrible disaster in Times Square was averted thanks to the quick action of New York residents and police and also, perhaps, the incompetence of the terrorist bomb maker. But the stark fact remains that Faisal Shahzad, the alleged perpetrator, seems to have been part of a plot that involved contacts and training in Pakistan. Did our intelligence agencies -- the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the FBI -- have a clue? And if not, why were they in the dark?

Gaining advance knowledge of a terrorist plot is an intrinsically difficult endeavor. Millions of people cross our borders every year and identifying terrorists, as we have learned on many occasions, will obviously not always be possible. Ferreting out treasonous American citizens like Mr. Shahzad is an even harder problem.

But we should not lose sight of one key factor. Some of our primary tools of counterterrorism have been severely compromised by the American press. Consider two major counterterrorism initiatives launched by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration.

The first is the so-called warrantless wiretapping of international calls by the National Security Agency. The New York Times disclosed critical details of the program in December 2005, alerting al Qaeda to our ability to monitor a high volume of phone calls and emails, not only from points in the United States to points abroad or vice versa, but also between foreign cities. Even calls or emails from a city like, say, Karachi to Islamabad might in some instances be vulnerable, the terrorists learned, to NSA interception. Would it be at all surprising, in light of the attention the New York Times brought to our surveillance capabilities, if a significant fraction of al Qaeda email and telephone communication dried up?

The same obtains for the revelation, published in the New York Times in June 2006 and followed immediately by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, that the CIA and the Treasury Department, in the search for the movement of al Qaeda funds, were tapping into the enormous database of financial transactions operated by the Belgian clearinghouse known as SWIFT.

The Times story disclosing the SWIFT program itself noted that the monitoring had achieved significant successes, including providing information leading to the arrest of Hambali, the top operative in the al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, who was behind the Bali bombing of 2002. In this instance even the Times’s own ombudsman, Byron Calame, concluded that the paper should not have run the story. Would it be surprising, once again, if, in light of the attention drawn to U.S. financial monitoring capabilities, al Qaeda began to move money in ways less likely to be caught in our surveillance sieve?

Both of these stories were published by newspapers against the strenuous objections of high-ranking officials in government, including straight-shooting intelligence professionals like CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden and, in the case of the SWIFT story, even leading Democrats, like former Congressman Lee Hamilton. President Bush himself warned the Times’s top editors that if they went forward with the NSA wiretapping story, they might one day have blood on their hands.

One interesting question that will now therefore arise is how Faisal Shahzad communicated with his contacts in Pakistan and how he obtained the funds he used to carry out his attack. In particular, did he take measures to evade our surveillance?

We are an open society that cannot be hardened against attacks like the one we just saw in Times Square. But a press that regards the First Amendment as a suicide pact and recklessly divulges operational counterterrorism secrets takes a very difficult problem and makes it far worse, placing us all at risk.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 5, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: classified information and press, media and national secrets, national security, wireless wiretapping  
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"We are an open society that cannot be hardened against attacks like the one we just saw in Times Square. But a press that regards the First Amendment as a suicide pact and recklessly divulges operational counterterrorism secrets takes a very difficult problem and makes it far worse, placing us all at risk."
It's not difficult at all to overcome the 'MYTH' that "society cannot be hardened against attacks.." Get rid of FISA and enact a "National Secrets Act" for starters. Fools reign, especially in the 'press'!

Posted by: realtimer | May 5, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

The details of the investigation should remain in the arena of Law enforcement only!

The details reported by all media will make it so much easier for the next Terrorist whack job to carry out his task of killing American citizens and bring a major city to a stop.

This clown got his citizenship papers only a year ago.

Seems to be he broke his oath therefore his US Citizenship should be revoked!

Thank you Law Enforcement that stopped this Clown before he could leave the country!

But the methods should be keep only among law enforcement groups!

Posted by: Acornisascam | May 5, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

First, thanks to the Citizens and Law Enforcement of United States (on a local and national level) for keeping the Homeland safe. This most recent failed terrorist attack increases my faith in Divine Providence favoring our Country. Indeed, God has blessed America.

However, I beg to differ that approximately 48 hours to an arrest of a suspected terrorist examples swiftness. We had at least three months to identify and apprehend this guy from his trip and stay in Pakistan, to his return to United States soil and through planning as well as implementation of a terrorist attack. Through all of our security assets (including huge spending in a time of war) this needle in the haystack was nearly successful of pulling off a terrorist attack and then fleeing the country.

I get the feeling that the news/entertainment industry does not appreciate the fact that we are at war and vulnerable to terrorist attacks because I believe we give the bad guys too much information. And that, since motive of terrorism is to instill insecurity by fear, certain news/entertainment productions do compound the effects of terrorism by rebroadcasting "the fear factor" over and over again. For example, "what if" the bomb had been effective ? Well, let your imaginations run wild if you like. I am sure the bad guys would love an assist on spreading the fear factor. So by spreading the fear even though the bomb failed to detonate properly, the bad guys still get a win to a lower degree of fear induced by terrorism in that the patsies of the media spread the fear for them. I call it rebroadcasting propaganda unchecked for political or news rating gains and in a time of war ?

Before Department of Homeland Security was created as a Federal Agency, post 09/11, citizens were scouring the virtual world searching for information available in public domain which may have assisted the bad guys in their deviance. I cannot confirm or deny hackers can take down websites that contain information which may have threatened our security. But, don't let us fool ourselves, as that kind of information has been available for over thirty years now I think.

One day in a supermarket during 4th of July week, a young man explained to me how to make a really cool fire cracker by picking up a few common household items while shopping. I passed on that experiment not really having any anarchist tendencies myself. I suppose that I am superstitious in that bad thing may happen in groups of three's. Next time, shame on us if the crotch does explode or an SUV, converted into a wmd, results in catastrophic loss implanting and instilling insecurity among the Populous. Let us not allow the bad guys to interrupt our Pursuit of Happiness.

Posted by: truthhurts | May 5, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Freedom of the press should not be used to justify every divulgement of details about a terrorist act. The press nor the public has any need to know about some of these details. When they are revealed and repeatedly discussed in the media, they provide information for future terrorists intent on killing innocent people. A case in point is the discussion about the locations of the vehicle identification number (VIN) on a car. It was obvious that this suspect knew enough to remove it from its most obvious place; now they will search the entire vehicle to find it. Counter measures for this disclosure need to be taken to make it virtually impossible to remove every VIN from a vehicle.

Posted by: richardwhetstone | May 5, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

The leaks on methodology start from inside the agencies themselves or congressional staffers. Throw the book at the leakers! The leakers are traitors and should be treated as such.

Posted by: kschur1 | May 5, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

It is with grim irony one can note that papers such as the Washington Post are usually the first to agitate about privacy rights but feel no need to honor law enforcement requirements for protected information sources or hidden methods of crime detection.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | May 5, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Right next to a headline asking if the press compromises counterterrorism, there's a diagram of where to place the explosives and other key components when building a car bomb. Hmmmmm... You think?

Posted by: Jumpy66 | May 5, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I'd rather live in a free society with a free press than live in a society where national security concerns trump freedom of the press. Anyone who's uncomfortable with that can find plenty of countries where the reverse is true.

Posted by: steveh46 | May 5, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Title 18 Section 798 says that it is illegal to transmit or publish information detrimental to the security of the United States.

If it's unlawful to tell anybody, it's unlawful to tell everybody. Rights have reasonable limits.

Posted by: WilliamWest1 | May 5, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

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