Attack on press just a distraction

June 30, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- President Bush protests a bit too much about The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal's exposure of his administration's secret money-tracking program.

The president called it "disgraceful" that the newspapers reported that Treasury Department officials acquired access to the world's largest international financial database, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, commonly known as SWIFT, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Republican Rep. Peter T. King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for criminal prosecution of The New York Times, whose actions he called "treasonous."

But if anyone thinks al-Qaida did not know before this story broke that the United States was combing through international banking transactions to follow terrorists' money supplies, they haven't been paying much attention to the news.

Less than a month after 9/11, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill pledged to Congress that his department would do nothing less.

"The Treasury Department will use every tool we have at our disposal to shut down terrorist fundraising and dismantle their organizations one dollar at a time," Mr. O'Neill said. "Their moral bankruptcy will be matched by an empty wallet."

What's really new and troubling about these stories is not the secret money probes but how much of it the Bush administration has zealously kept secret from the courts and Congress, the branches of government that have constitutional oversight over the executive branch.

Instead of seeking individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, which is the normal way the government acquires Americans' financial records, Treasury officials have bypassed the courts to rely instead on broad administrative subpoenas, which essentially are issued by one part of the executive branch to another.

Some banking and government officials expressed reservations, according to the reports, that what began as an urgent, temporary measure without specific congressional approval or formal authorization showed no signs of changing nearly five years later.

Mr. Bush said Monday that members of Congress had been briefed in advance on the program, which is true. But some, including Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said they were briefed by Treasury Department officials only after the administration learned it would be exposed in the press.

Since President Richard M. Nixon, apparently fearing the public backlash, declined to press charges against The New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the bounty of lies that got us into the Vietnam quagmire, I doubt that the Bush administration will take that step. But, then, Mr. Nixon didn't have today's echo chamber of conservative commentators to help him distract the public from his cover-ups.

Mr. Bush would rather distract us from the larger story lurking here, which is the return of Total Information Awareness, a massive databank operated by a Pentagon agency under Iran-contra figure John M. Poindexter to monitor any check-card purchase, bank transaction, medical bill and other electronic transaction in America. Congress took away that program's funds in September 2003 amid public alarm about the dangers it posed to privacy rights.

But its research funding continued. The National Journal reported this year that Team Bush broke up the program and moved part of it to the National Security Agency.

Governments traditionally use fear of terrorists or some other subversions of national security to excuse power grabs. It is for that reason that the Bush administration, like any other, needs to be held accountable for what it does in the name of keeping us safe. Instead of making its case to Congress, the courts and the public, the administration is treating accountability like one more threat to national security.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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