Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The War on Terror I: What Civil Liberties?

President Bush and Vice President Cheney are spitting mad that The New York Times has reported that the government is sifting through Americans' bank records as well as eavesdropping on their phone calls because, they claim in so many words, it gives terrorsts the upper hand if they know they can't use Visa or American Express cards to buy plastic explosives.

The Scribe over at HighwayScribery is spitting mad that the War on Terror has again been used as a pretext for violating civil liberties:
First it was unauthorized wiretapping that was done, unilaterally, and without consulting anyone because it was a necessary and indispensable measure in the War on Terror.

Then it turned out the Bush administration, which is on a crusade to democratize the Middle East, was sifting through everybody’s phone calls, unilaterally and without consulting anyone, because it was a necessary and indispensable measure in the War on Terror.

Now it turns out that unilaterally, and without consulting anybody at all, the administration has been sifting through everybody’s financial transactions, because doing so is a necessary and indispensable measure in the War on Terror.

. . . Folks, the endless uncovering of terrorist plots notwithstanding, you have more chance of being killed in a hail storm.

Sure, there was 9/11, and that was terrible, a downer, but it’s time to start facing up to the fact Bush knew there were threats, but chose to clear brush in Crawford.

Translation: The buck stopped with him.

And it’s time to start owning up to the fact this decadent country of watchers and pleasure-seekers crapped its pants and handed over every right anybody ever died for to the government in exchange for protection.

Now you see what protection is: Government in your soup.

. . . Rather than be sensitized to the horrors of violence in the wake of 9/11, the American people endorsed more violence and supported this band of thugs in their unprovoked invasion of Iraq, because there was a War on Terror.

For the rest of the Scribe's thoughts, go here.

Dean Baquet is editor of the Los Angeles Times, which along with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran stories on the government monitoring financial records.

Like the other Times, the L.A. Times was condemned for running the story. (Funny how the Journal has largely escaped criticism. Don't think it has anything to do with its slavishly pro-Republican editorial pages, do you?)

In a letter to his readers, Baquet explains why the decision was made to go with the story. For those of us who have lost sight of the importance of a free and vigilant press as a counterweight to a presidential administration with no regard for civil liberties, it is worth reading his explanation in its entirety:
The decision to publish this article was not one we took lightly. We considered very seriously the government's assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.

We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department's program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism.

In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.

Some readers have seen our decision to publish this story as an attack on the Bush administration and an attempt to undermine the war on terror.

We are not out to get the president. This newspaper has done much hard-hitting reporting on terrorism, from around the world, often at substantial risk to our reporters. We have exposed terrorist cells and led the way in exposing the work of terrorists. We devoted a reporter to covering Al Qaeda's role in world terrorism in the months before 9/11. I know, because I made the assignment.

But we also have an obligation to cover the government, with its tremendous power, and to offer information about its activities so citizens can make their own decisions. That's the role of the press in our democracy.

The founders of the nation actually gave us that role, and instructed us to follow it, no matter the cost or how much we are criticized. Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." That's the edict we followed.

This was a tough call for me, as I'm sure it was for the editors of other papers that chose to publish articles on the subject. But history tells us over and over that the nation's founders were right in pushing the press into this role. President Kennedy persuaded the press not to report the Bay of Pigs planning. He later said he regretted this, that he might have called it off had someone exposed it.

History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish. No one believes, in retrospect, that there was any true reason to withhold the Pentagon Papers, although the government fought vigorously to keep them from being published by the New York Times and the Washington Post. As Justice Hugo Black put it in that case: "The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic."

I don't expect all of our readers to agree with my call. But understand that it was one taken with serious reflection and supported by much history.

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