I went to bed on June 25 believing that Islamo-facism was our country's most immediate threat. I woke up on June 26 to find out that no, it was The New York Times. That's the day President Bush publicly criticized newspapers that exposed a secret U.S. government program that monitors international banking transactions. He called the disclosures a "disgraceful" act that could only help terrorists.
But it is his comments that strike me as not just a shame, but somewhat of a sham.
The president singled out The New York Times, though the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal published similar reports. Bush's comments amplified attacks on The Times from Vice President Dick Cheney and administration supporters in the media.
Republicans in Congress joined the charge last Thursday, when the House voted along party lines to condemn news organizations for revealing the tracking program.
The Internet devoured the controversy. One blogger said it was time to take seriously the idea that the Sept. 11 attackers should have aimed for The Times headquarters in New York.
A cynic would say the administration picked a fight with The Times because, well, there's a war it knew it could win, a diversion from the fact that we're losing a bigger war.
The administration could charge The Times with endangering lives and America's security, without ever having to prove that, as a result of The Times' report, lives are in danger or America is at greater risk.
Prior to publication, The Times weighed this speculative risk against the public interest in government transparency and oversight. It can't have been an easy choice. Newspapers are perfectly capable of being overzealous in their rush to reveal. "The difference between a stripper and a newspaper is that the former never pretends to be performing a public service by exposure," the jouralist I.F. Stone once said.
But in this case the burden of proof was on the administration. Engaging in warrantless wire-tapping and establishing military tribunals that a conservative Supreme Court found unconstitutional last month does not engender trust.
The Times' editors no doubt also took into account the fact that reports on financial tracking had appeared numerous times before, beginning with the president's 2001 announcement that his administration would do everything in its power to disrupt the source of terrorist funding.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind details these steps in his recent book on the war on terror, "The One Percent Doctrine."
In fact, Suskind writes, the initial success of the money-tracking led terrorist networks to abandon international money transfer by late 2003. "The al-Qaeda playbook," he writes, "employed by what was left of the network, started to stress the necessity of using couriers to carry cash." The Bush administration's use of financial intelligence was "the most successful, coordinated area in the entire government in the 'war on terror,'" in the words of a former CIA official Suskind quotes. But Al Qaeda -- and Suskind -- had it figured out long before The New York Times.
It seems a debate on press freedom and responsibility would, at the very least, be a welcome break from the weeks of speechifying over gay marriage and flag burning. But my fear is that this debate too is not part of the real war, but of the culture wars. Call me paranoid, but when the conservative base goes after The New York Times, I sense the attack is wrapped up with notions of "Jewish" and "liberalism."
And some of my best friends are Jewish and liberal. (First they came for Howard Stern, then The New York Times, then --quick, call Jon Stewart).
I'm not alone in this thinking. "Many members of the president's base consider 'New York' to be a nifty code word for 'Jewish,'" Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.
George Bush has demonstrated over and over his concern for and appreciation of the Jewish community, but -- when it's time to rally the base -- he knows which buttons to push.
And that's too bad. Because even if we American Jews put aside our self-interest as a minority in protecting the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, we have an existential interest in the war on terrorists who have pledged to target us, in particular. And I'm afraid this brouhaha shows that the White House's eye is drifting from the ball.
Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress convened a panel of 100 of America's top foreign policy experts. They were Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative and neoconservative. Nearly 80 percent worked in the U.S. government, a third in the military and 17 percent in the intelligence services. The magazine polled them on where America stood in its war on terror, and 86 percent said the world is becoming more dangerous for Americans.
Asked whether they agreed with the president that the United States is winning the war on terror, 84 percent said no, and 13 said yes. Of conservative respondents, 71 percent said no. (The results of the entire poll are in the magazine's July/August issue and at www.foreignpolicy.com.)
The experts were also asked what America's priorities should be in the war on terror.
They listed seven top items.
Guess what No. 1 was? Guess what 82 percent of conservative and liberal foreign policy experts agreed was the best way to win the war on terror? That's right: "Reduce America's use of foreign oil."
Funny, shutting down The New York Times didn't even make the list.
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