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Counterterrorism and the Press

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.

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