Austin Bay

October Surprise? This year, October began on Sunday, June 23, when The New York Times sprang this election's first, most odious and most damaging "media revelation."

I'm referring to the Times' faux-expose of the productive and legal counter-terrorist finance intelligence operation that involved the Belgium-based consortium the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).

That operation gleaned information that helped nab terrorist kingpin Hambali, the architect of the 2002 Bali (Indonesia) terror massacre.

After the Times exposed this classified operation, I wrote a column asking why the Times editors had done something so fundamentally stupid. My guess: "The simple power to do it is one explanation -- and that's the power of a bully. ... The Times obviously believes it can expose intelligence secrets and pay no penalty."

Times enablers greeted all critique with the usual rhetorical parries. We heard "the free press" defense -- as if the intelligence community wasn't engaged in defending the system that permits a free press. The Times and its national media enablers (by innuendo) suggested the Bush administration might be engaged in illegal spying on innocent people, though the June article admitted the program was limited "to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to al-Qaida by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry."

Last week, the Times' "public editor," Byron Calame, issued a lame "mea culpa." He wrote he hadn't "found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws." (Earth to Calame: We told you that in June.)

Calame added: "My original support for the article rested heavily on the fact that so many people already knew about the program that serious terrorists also must have been aware of it. But critical, and clever, readers were quick to point to a contradiction: The Times article and headline had both emphasized that a 'secret' program was being exposed."

Thus, the Times exposes its own bubble world. Remember, this "elite" fish-wrapper attacks Weblogs and makes derisive fun of George Bush's verbal miscues.

Throughout the summer, I read volumes of informed criticism of the Times --criticism the Times' staff pooh-poohed. Now, it seems Calame and Times Editor in Chief Bill Keller were neither informed enough nor concerned enough to understand the criticism, much less understand the damage their clique did to America's ability to conduct multilateral intelligence programs.

Remember the word "multilateral?" That's what John Kerry-type Democrats claim our effort in Iraq is not. The SWIFT program was a meticulously constructed multinational covert operation that had the cooperation of Belgium, Spain and other European nations. The Times' revelation not only damaged the SWIFT program as an individual effort, but damaged the "inside diplomacy" that organized it and ensured its legality.

I've discussed the SWIFT debacle with my contacts in the U.S. intelligence and defense technology communities, and asked for an estimate of what it would cost to reconstitute a SWIFT-type intel program. Gut estimates range from $400 million to $500 million -- a hefty quantity of taxpayer cash. Complete program reconstitution probably isn't necessary. SWIFT may still be operating, but if it is it operates with reduced effectiveness -- the Times' tipped off al-Qaida. Not surprisingly, every source has stressed the qualitative damage done to the political-diplomatic side of multilateral intelligence cooperation.

The New York Times calculates it can defend itself against criminal charges involving the publication of classified material. Times editors intend to play "media martyrs" defending the First Amendment against a "government attack on a fundamental right."

But we must speak truth to media as well as government and corporate abuse of power.

Perhaps the U.S. government should file a civil lawsuit to recover the loss of a significant defense and intelligence investment. No, I'm not a lawyer, but it's fair to ask if the Times did quantifiable damage to U.S. taxpayers. If it did, how much? Two hundred million dollars? Fifty million? Or did it do zero damage?

Calame belatedly recognizes a corporate error by his employer. In most cases, an apology more than suffices. However, if the SWIFT expose hurt critical security efforts in the midst of a counter-terror war (which many people believe it did), then it went beyond legitimate political speech or reporting and became an arrogant, stupid, wanton, reckless act that wreaked qualitative and quantitative damage.

American soldiers and intelligence agents have their lives on the line. The Bush administration needs to back their effort with a demonstration of political grit and at least consider asking a jury (of taxpayers) to consider the matter.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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