Fat Steve's Blatherings

Friday, July 29, 2005

"Confusion Worse Confounded," Part Two: The Arrogance of Ignorance

      So, here's the second installment of my look at Byron Calame, The New York Times's public editor.  (And my apologies for not making my self-imposed daily deadine).

        Calame's second "public editor" column concerned a story the Times did about
the Central Intelligence Agency's covert air operations for transporting suspected terrorists
which appeared on Page 1 on May 31st, 2005.  The column named the charter airline company the CIA uses when it transports prisoners, had pictures of planes with tale numbers visible and quite a lot of information that would make it easy to spot CIA operations.  There was a great deal of criticism:
      The generally strident e-mail messages demanded to know why The Times had decided to publish information that the readers believe will aid terrorists and make life in the United States less safe for everyone -- especially the people carrying out the operation. Most of them didn't seem to be aware that the once-secret air operations had been mentioned in earlier articles and broadcasts elsewhere.

      The root of the airline story appears to have been the Sept. 26th, 2002 detention of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was flying from Tunisia to Montreal, with a change of planes in New York.  Arar was alleged to be an al-Qaeda member, and was apparently being investigated by Canadian security, who tipped off U.S. officials that he was on the plane.  Arar was detained, but allowed to call his family.  He was then shipped to Syria around Oct. 7-10th, 2002.  In Syria, he was held for a year, then released him to Canada.  Arar claims the Syrians tortured him, and sued the U.S. government.

      The uproar over the Arar case seems to have been what brought the practice of rendition to light.  The first specific mention of the term "rendition" I've found is a Village Voice story from March, 2004, which reports on testimony then-CIA director George Tenet gave Congress.  The story claims the practice started in 1989, and the Beeb notes that Clinton authorized its use in terrorism cases in the '90s.  The focus on planes seems to have started with a 60 Minutes story in March of this year, which centered on a Swedish case.  The New York Times then got into the act.

      The Times story was bylined by Scott Shane, Stephen Grey, and Margot Williams.  Shane wrote an e-mail to one irate reader which was laterly used as a form letter for everyone who complained.  Calame reprinted the e-mail in his column:
      Your criticism of our article on C.I.A. air operations is a thoughtful one.

      In English: 'We got your letter, which we can't be bothered to respond to individually, but we'll fake it.'
      Writing about secret intelligence operations is always a balancing act, and reasonable people can draw the line in different places as to how much the citizens who pay for the intelligence agencies should be told about what those agencies are doing.

      Here we see the media's conceit that they are always reasonable.  Note that the vast majority of readers thought they were egregiously out of line.
      The C.I.A.'s practice of rendition has come to light almost exclusively through analysis of the agency's air operations, starting with plane-spotting hobbyists who routinely post airplane tail numbers and photos on the Web.  Media coverage of those rendition cases in many countries has started an important debate about the wisdom and competence of the agency in carrying them out.  But no such debate could take place if the press did not aggressively seek to find out what the agency is doing and inform the public about it.

      What pathetic lies.  As noted, the press first became aware of rendition in 2002, when the Arar case hit the headlines, but only focused on the mechanics of it recently.  As for the "important debate about the wisdom and competence" of renditions, how does telling me where a charter airline is located help me understand the "wisdom and competence" of the operation one of its planes carried out?
      Perhaps it's the result of my having worked as a correspondent in the Soviet Union for a few years, but I think there's a strong case that excessive government secrecy leads to waste and abuse, and that an aggressive press improves the effectiveness of intelligence agencies in the long run.

      'Yeah ma'am, just trying to help the government work better.'  Who does he think he's kidding?  This is, remember, the same paper that screamed for blood about the 'outing' of Valerie Plame as a CIA employee, predicting terrible consequences for saying that she was a CIA employee.  Now, it has outed an entire cover company, but that's because the government was using "excesive" secrecy.  FEH!

      Well, perhaps, in the long run, the CIA will hide stuff from the press with greater effectiveness.  I hope so, anyway.
      In this case, if reporters using public information can penetrate these air operations, I suspect foreign intelligence services, or Al Qaeda operatives, would have little difficulty doing so.

      Wait, a moment ago we were talking of excessive secrecy, now it's inadequate secrecy.  Make up your mind.
      Our story was based on information from public F.A.A. and corporate records and F.A.A.  flight plan data available to all from commercial vendors.  Before our story was published, the tail numbers, and photographs, of several of the rendition planes could be found easily via a Google search on the Web.

      Ah, the story is harmless, because it's all old news.  That's why they put it on page one.  In fact, the name and location of the air charter company was not known, as well as many other details.  The Times made it easier for terrorists to know what the CIA is up to.
      In addition, a summary of the planned story was provided to the C.I.A. several days prior to publication, and no request was made to withhold any of its contents.

      And Robert Novak called the CIA before he did the Plame story, and they didn't tell him not to say that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.  The CIA has a policy of not commenting about certain issues.  That doesn't mean they consider their publication OK.

      The rest of the column mostly revolves around two ideas.  The first is 'If the Times can find it out, anyone can.'  Not only is this false, it's irrelevant — why do some of the enemy's work for him?

      The second idea is 'We showed the story to the CIA, and they didn't object, so it must be fine.'  Remember, in our first installment, when Calame was talking about all his journalistic background.  He didn't use any of it to investigate why the CIA failed to object to the story..  He never seems to have pondered the questions, 'Why do the readers see this so differently than reporters do?  Could they be right, and we wrong?'  He just blindly accepted the assurances of the newsroom that their failure to object meant that everything was hunky-dory.

      Instead of a man representing the readers' concerns to the paper, in this column Calame was just a flack for the paper.

      Still, we have to give Calame some props for integrity.  The 'don't worry, be happy' article ran on July 19th.  Six days later, he posted a letter on his web page from Thomas A. Twetten, for Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA.  Twetten pointed out that it isn't the place of the Times to unilaterally decide how much secrecy is "excessive."  He notes that the aircraft may have been used for many types of secret missions, all of which the Times story "put at risk."  He noted that al-Qaeda was still trying to kill USAmericans, and that the CIA was the first line of defence against foreign terrorists.  Twetten stated that the CIA would probably need to devote time and money to changing methods, rather than hunting terrorists.  CIA operatives would be at greater risk, he thought.

      Finally, Twetten said:
      I am not reassured, as you are, by the lack of a C.I.A. response to your summary.  How much detail (not how often) has The Times deleted from your stories on sensitive intelligence matters at the request of the intelligence community since 9/11?  Is it 1 percent?  Could it be as high as 5 percent?  Has it occurred to The New York Times that you might no longer be considered a responsible interlocutor?  Commenting on a summary from your reporter carries a high risk of further erosion of C.I.A. sources and methods.  It is another one of those national security judgment calls.  It should give you pause, not reason for justification, that C.I.A. chose silence.

      In sum, Twetten has said that Calame didn't know enough about the subject to write intelligently on it.  I'll add that Calame's column showed an unthinking assumption that the point of view of reporters is always right.  That's the kind of "arrogance of ignorance" that is slowly destroying the nation's trust in the MSM.



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