May 5, 2012
National Security Is No Place For Double StandardsBy Michael Widlanski
The Obama Administration says it wants to create a special new spy agency in the Pentagon which will focus on emerging threats and needs.
"The Pentagon is revamping its spy operations to focus on high-priority targets like Iran and China," wrote New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt this week, seeming to support the need to expand intelligence gathering capabilities as new threats emerge or older threats grow, and when the CIA is clearly not doing the job on its own.
One can imagine that if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld had asked for more data-gathering power they would have been condemned by Democrats and the press for making a naked power play. Indeed, one need not imagine, because this actually happened, several times.
Rumsfeld, Cheney, Assistant Defense Secretary Doug Feith and analyst Richard Perle felt the CIA dropped the ball before and after 9-11. The Bush security team saw CIA needed help. Rumsfeld tried to beef up the Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA. He and his aides were often attacked by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) for their efforts.
Worse, the Bush security team was regularly pilloried by liberal media press and Democrats for sabotaging the CIA, for abusing their powers and American liberties.
Times columnist Maureen Dowd and her colleagues slammed Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle with epithets like "Darth Vader" and "the Prince of Darkness." They and other media voices alleged torture of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo prison, which The Times and presidential candidate Barack Obama demanded be closed.
"Water-boarding" was likened to medieval torture chambers, though it was not torture, only used rarely, and when used , produced tremendous data that saved lives. Today, we know there were few cases of abuse, and most of the journalistic accounts of abuse and torture by CIA agents and military personnel were exaggerated or false.
Newsweek Magazine had to recant one such account, but stories of wholesale burnings of Qurans or flushing them down toilets-vastly overblown or totally false-still led to many deaths of innocent civilians and US personnel due to a swell of media-inflamed-anger in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta -- who has far less of a security background than a Rumsfeld or a Cheney -- made the case for a new spy agency.
This is part of an amazing role reversal under the Obama Administration for Panetta, who had spent 20 years as a cost-cutter at the House Budget Committee and the Office of Management and Budget, without much interest in security matters.
A cynic might raise the possibility that Panetta was aggrandizing his domain at the Department of Defense at the expense of the CIA, shortly after ending his tenure as CIA director, but it is wrong to be a cynic when it comes to national security.
A cynic "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," and it is clear that Panetta's exposure to intelligence matters in the last three years has made him a believer in high-value intelligence that costs money but saves lives.
After the killing of Osama Bin-Laden, Panetta confirmed what Cheney had long contended: that material from questioning at Guantanamo helped track and kill terror leaders, including Osama Bin-Laden.
To stop terrorists and to meet new threats we need intelligence, and leaders who ask for resources to do the job should not be abused just because they are from the wrong political party. To paraphrase President Obama, there should be no red states or blue states, no Democrats and Republicans playing partisan games on national security.
A few years ago, special intelligence projects by the National Security Agency -- to track terrorists foreign phone calls and bank transfers -- were deliberately "outed" by The New York Times, winning two Pulitzer Prizes. This month the Associated Press won another Pulitzer Prize for articles critical of NY Police anti-terror programs.
The articles were deemed prize-worthy, but they were not praise-worthy. The US and NYPD anti-terror programs all saved lives, and if they had been in effect before 9-11 and before 1993, many terror attacks -- including catastrophic assaults on New York and Washington -- might have been prevented.
President George W. Bush, his cabinet officials, the heads of CIA and NSA all asked the Times not to publish the material on the secret NSA surveillance programs, personally appealing to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and to Times editors, several times, including a special meeting in the Oval Office. That was in 2004-2006.
Bush and Cheney later discussed the matter in their memoirs, strongly indicating that they felt The Times had acted in a shallow and partisan manner.
"What we did was fully authorized under the law," declared President Bush at the time, meeting with soldiers. "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful," he added.
Later, Times Public Editor Byron Calame admitted this. "I haven't found any evidence in the intervening months that the surveillance program was illegal under United States laws," said Calame , referring to programs tracking money transfers by suspected terrorists.
Calame essentially removed the ethical basis of the Times Pulitzer Prize-winning revelation, but his finding was not on the front page. It was buried in a place where most Times readers would have trouble finding it -- in the body of an article about something else, deep in the bowels of the Sunday edition of The New York Times.
But Times reporters, crusading Times columnists, like-minded reporters at other media outlets, and liberal political organizations did not admit their error. "The revelation of the CIA's financial spying program is another example of the Bush administration's abuse of power," said the American Civil Liberties Union at the time.
It is a pleasant change that Democrats in Congress and liberal journalists have not yet attacked this new attempt to get a jump on America's enemies and rivals.
Let's hope that redoubling our intelligence efforts to deal with real threats also leads to abandonment of the double standard applied by some journalists and organizations.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and The Jerusalem Post, and he served Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel's Ministry of Public Security.
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