My friend Derek quoted an article in the National Review that condemned the New York Times for “exposing” the SWIFT monitoring program. I wrote him a lengthy response, some of which I’ve included here…

When the Gov says certain things– like monitoring banking transactions, in this case– should be secret, I roll my eyes. Anyone with the brains of cabbage would realize by now that the feds have been watching money flowing around the world. To prove my point, I actually did some (take a deep breath) research. In December 2002 the United Nations released a report containing this paragraph:

The settlement of international transactions is usually handled through correspondent banking relationships or large-value message and payment systems, such as the SWIFT, Fedwire or CHIPS systems in the United States of America. Such international clearance centres are critical to processing international banking transactions and are rich with payment information. The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions.

Other groups, ranging from Taliban monitoring agencies to MIT graduate students, have either postulated that the U.S. was watching SWIFT, or had ample evidence that it was actually happening. In this sense, the expose by the Times (and other newspapers) wasn’t revelational or even that surprising. Consider Bush himself, who said this while campaigning in 2004:

Before September the 11th, law enforcement could more easily obtain business and financial records of white-collar criminals than of suspected terrorists. See, part of the way to make sure that we catch terrorists is we chase money trails.

This was part of a rah-rah speech about the PATRIOT Act, and he all but told the terrorists he was watching their money. Two days ago, he said the Times article did “great harm” to the U.S. Doesn’t it seem to be a bit of a double standard for Bush to talk about tracking money, but for him to condemn a reporter for doing the same?

Some of the criticism being leveled at the Times and Co. has been that the articles they’ve been publishing– the SWIFT one as well as the past wiretapping exercise and others– are somehow aiding the terrorists by telling them what the U.S. is watching. Give me a break. I’m sure there are dumb terrorists in the world, but the smart ones already knew things like phone calls and banking transactions were being monitored. At a minimum they realize that even if they aren’t being actively watched, the Gov can swoop in at any time and demand records. We’ve seen how THAT turns out, to the great shame of several telecommunications companies.

The National Review article mentions:

When he blows secrets, Keller gets more attention– and presumably more business– for his newspaper.

I won’t argue that. There’s undoubtably a financial motive for the Times‘ publication of articles like these. But I’d like to believe there’s also another motive: exposing the truth for public comment. That’s an integral part of democracy– transparency of the government, so the people can understand (and have healthy debate) about what is or isn’t being done on their behalf. Remember always that the government exists to serve the people, not the other way around. There SHOULD be accountability for breaches of privacy, for sidestepping the law, for pursuing questionable agendas. To believe that the Gov is always right, and will always pursue its plans with our best interests in mind, is mind-bogglingly obtuse.

Allow me to quote Thomas Jefferson:

Our first object should therefore be, to leave open all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found is freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.

He, as well as the other framers of the Constitution, WANTED the press to investigate the government. It was clearly the intent of the First Amendment to allow the press to always distrust the Gov, and vice versa, because only through this mutual dog-fighting does the system maintain balance. If the Gov was allowed to pursue things in complete secrecy, there would be no accountability and there would be no limit on the possibility of abuse. And again I maintain that to believe the government would not abuse its power is obtuse.

Here’s another Jefferson line:

… In choosing government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.

Recall that he and his compatriots were designing the American government specifically to avoid the abuses the British government had levied upon them. They WANTED, very much, for the government to have a system of checks and balances– and even more checks and balances outside the government (i.e., the press). It is a telling sign that the Bush administration and their apologists want to remove the freedom of the press in cases like this because they fear that too much is being exposed.

The closing of the National Review article includes this:

The reporters who wrote about it, Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, should be subpoenaed, and if they refuse to reveal their sources, they should go to jail.

To me, this is the very antithesis of a free press. To imprison a journalist for telling the truth– particularly on a matter of public concern and one that isn’t terribly secret– is taking a step into dangerous territory. It’s saying the government can do whatever it wants, without question or oversight, and those who dare to stand up and ask should be locked away.

I for one don’t trust my government. At all. And to those who do, I say they should examine very closely the events of the past four years, thinking about the abuses we’ve learned about as well as those which are doubtless happening now but cloaked in secrecy. We need more exposes; we need more reporters like those at the Times.