Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bank surveillance

J.D., in an otherwise sensible piece on the banking surveillance program, writes something odd:
They [the media] have a responsibility to fairly inform us when they uncover wrongdoing. When there is no wrongdoing and when there is significant danger that disclosure of information would cause material harm to people, they have a responsibility to sit on it. I believe that Bill Keller failed this time in that responsibility.
I don't disagree with anything but the last sentence of that passage. There are questions about potential wrongdoing, since administrative subpoenas lack the sort of oversight and narrow focus that a judicial subpoena would have, and the breadth of the program was the only thing that was news.

As Richard Clarke and Roger Cressey (who know quite a bit about counter-terrorism) pointed out a while back, terrorists have been publicly warned that their financial transactions are being scrutinized. American banks already have heavy reporting requirements for any suspicious transaction. And the President has stated clearly that we're tracing the flow of money.

Knowing the details helps inform democratic action, helps the public determine whether they are satisfied with what is and isn't being done to protect them, and doesn't help the terrorists evade the program. They already know to avoid the formal banking system because they already know those transactions are under surveillance.

Knowing the details doesn't help them (see Bruce Schneier's regular diatribes against "security through obscurity"). It does help us.

The Slate article j.d. and the entirely correct Joel are working off of makes a comparable error. After an analysis of the program's legal standing, Weisberg decides that if the program is legal, there's no public interest in knowing about it. But that's absurd. Lots of entirely legal things, even legally required things, remain relevant for reporting. The calculus he applies for determining "public interest" simply isn't one that any newspaper does or should apply. And a paper that claims to report "all the news that's fit to print" ought to err in favor of reporting more than in favor of self-censorship.

There's a strain of right-wing media criticism that seems to think that the press wages ideological war by reporting certain facts. There's a strain of left-wing media criticism that seems to think the press wages ideological war by not reporting certain facts. I'm not convinced I buy either claim. I think the press engages in all-too-human biases of laziness and deference to power, but tracking down a secret program and reporting it so that the public can make informed banking decisions is not an example of that bias.

As a simple test of the claims being tossed around about this program and its reporting. I call it "the Bill Clinton test." Would the press have reported this program under Bill Clinton? I think so, though they would have shown more interest were his penis involved. Would the right-wing have decried this invasion of national security? No, they would have complained bitterly that the Clenis was trying to track their finances in order to further the implementation of the New World Order. And the Republican Congress would hold years of hearings into the President's actions, followed by the appointment of a special prosecutor who would spend a decade and a billion dollars to determine that three staffers committed technical violations unworthy of prosecution.

The press isn't an agent in anyone's ideological war.