Losing the War of Secrets
Vol: 58 Issue: 8 Saturday, July 8, 2006
The most recent ‘secret’ investigation to find its way into the headlines exposed a plot to blow up a New York subway train as close to September 11 as possible. This particular secret was blown by the New York Daily News.
The New York Daily News report follows the mold of the New York Times’ recent revelations about how we track terrorist finances.
When the New York Times blew the SWIFT story wide open, the editors justified it by making the bizarre claim that, “it was common knowledge anyway.” In other words, the story wasn’t news, so that’s why they decided it was ok to run it.
Further, they argued, the fact the US was using a Belgian financial center was in the ‘public interest’.
The story caused an uproar in Europe and embarrassed Belgian officials shut the program down. (This was the program that netted, among others, Sheik Khalid Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11)
As in that case, officials pleaded with the NY Daily News not to run the story, but the News decided that sitting on it was not in the public interest.
The News reported, “Three suspects have been busted – including self proclaimed mastermind Assem Hammoud, authorities said. Hammoud is in a Lebanese jail. Another suspect was in custody in England, and a third was picked up in Canada, sources said. Canadian media reported a Montreal man was questioned but later released because there wasn’t enough evidence to hold him.”
Further, noted the News, “Five other suspects remained at-large, but [NYC Police Commissioner] Kelly said their whereabouts “are known and they are being observed.”
Not that it matters. Thanks to the New York Daily News report, the five other suspects now know that they are under observation and that the original plot is blown.
If the government can’t make a case against them with what they have now, they are free to plot anew. All in the name of the ‘public interest’.
Having blown the investigation, the News went on to reveal yet another terrorist-tracking method used by the government. It appears that the jihadists had been unaware that the FBI was monitoring internet chat rooms.
The plot was uncovered more than a year ago by U.S. and Canadian intelligence agents watching a jihadist internet chat room. Officials said the suspects communicated freely, thinking that no one could track them. (They know now.) Similar chat rooms were used by the alleged terrorists arrested recently in Toronto and Miami.
While one might make the NYT argument that it wasn’t a secret, it was to me. I admit I probably assumed that they were monitoring chat rooms, I really didn’t give it much thought.
I do now. And so do future terrorist wannabes.
Jack Cloonan, former senior agent on the FBI’s bin Laden squad in New York, told ABC News that, “The chat rooms have literally exploded since 9/ll because we are now right in the midst of electronic jihad.”
Honestly, did I need to know that? Did you need to know that? In what way is knowing that terrorists use chat rooms to plan terrorist attacks ‘in the public interest’?
Is the public being left out of the terror plotting? Do you, John Q Public, feel slighted? Or is it a public service to let people know where they can go to participate in the plotting?
The ‘public interest’ argument is transparently thin. The reason for revealing classified information is to serve partisan interests. The revelations themselves come at the EXPENSE of the public interest.
Consider the reaction to the revelation of the SWIFT story, for a second. The Belgians were cooperating with us in secret. When the secret was splashed all over the newspapers, they withdrew their cooperation and closed the door on an entire facet of the terror war. One of the most successful, according to the government.
There are dozens of governments cooperating with the United States whose cooperation is dependent on secrecy. Particularly Middle Eastern governments whose cooperation with the US could spark an internal Islamic conflict that could bring them down.
If they can’t be sure that their cooperation won’t make US headlines, they aren’t going to take the risk. And our warfighting ability is further compromised, to the delight of our enemies.
The Electronic Jihad story that grew out of the Daily News’ report is one of 1,206 stories on Google’s news crawler today. Do you suppose that terrorist plotters using internet chat rooms can’t figure out how to use Google?
Finally, do you suppose that any of the editors of any of the newspapers under discussion are unaware of the potential consequences of their stories?
The most important weapon in any war is warfighting intelligence. It isn’t the side with the most troops or the best weapons that wins the day. It’s the side with the best intelligence. And thus it has been since the wars of Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
Revelations of government programs without congressional or court oversight have become routine, whether they involve secret prisons in eastern Europe, CIA kidnappings and “renditions” of suspects to other countries, or the formerly secret NSA terrorist wiretap program.
All of these warfighting tactics shared one common flaw. They only worked when they were secret.