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Lichtblau’s Defense: We Told The Terrorists Nothing They Didn’t Already Know

Thursday, June 29, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Eric Lichtblau is one of the authors of the New York Times’ piece from June 23 that I believe has assited terrorists in eluding capture. He has denied this, and when he and I appear on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday, he’ll make the same claim.

I wrote about it briefly in my Townhall.com column this morning, and Tom Macguire has ben dealing with variants of the argument as well.

But given this “no harm, no foul” defense is likely to be the last refuge for an elite media staggered by the public’s anger, it deserves a little more detail.

First, the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus has admitted to me on air (transcript here) that the stories “conceivably” could help terrorists avoid capture.

Once any sort of possibility is allowed, the argument is over, as no one in the meida can quantify the risk, and ifit can’t be quantified, it can’t be justified. You cannot “balance” what you cannot “weigh.”

So Lichtblau has adopted the only defensible rhetoric, but using it reveals himself to be either disingenuous or simply not very bright.

First, and most obviously, consider how many terrorists there are in the world. That number is, at a minimum, in the tens of thousands.

Unless each of them had detailed knowledge of Swift and how it worked, then those that didn’t but gained that knowledge immediately after publication or will have that knowledge passed to them by trainers down the road will be better prepared by that information to elude capture.

Lichtblau and his enablers respond that “everybody” knew and the Administration loudly proclaimed that terrorist financing was under surveillance. This transparent dodge is akin to arguing that because everyone knows that police try and catch speeders, that every motorist knows every speed trap, radar gun and mounted camera deployed around the country.

Illustration: Does Mr. Lichtblau want to bet that the Canadian cell or the Miami cell knew what Swift was, or that 7,800 institutions routed all their finances through one system in Belgium that the U.S. had access to?

Better yet, Mr. Lichtblau ought to read his original story, in which this disclosure is made:

The idea for the Swift program, several officials recalled, grew out of a suggestion by a Wall Street executive, who told a senior Bush administration official about Swift’s database. Few government officials knew much about the consortium, which is led by a Brooklyn native, Leonard H. Schrank, but they quickly discovered it offered unparalleled access to international transactions. Swift, a former government official said, was “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” for financial data.

Lichtblau’s story also noted that “the banking program is a closely held secret,” and that it was “hidden,” no doubt because of the scale of the operation was simply not understood even by sophisticated terrorists:

Swift’s database provides a rich hunting ground for government investigators. Swift is a crucial gatekeeper, providing electronic instructions on how to transfer money among 7,800 financial institutions worldwide. The cooperative is owned by more than 2,200 organizations, and virtually every major commercial bank, as well as brokerage houses, fund managers and stock exchanges, uses its services. Swift routes more than 11 million transactions each day, most of them across borders.

The cooperative’s message traffic allows investigators, for example, to track money from the Saudi bank account of a suspected terrorist to a mosque in New York. Starting with tips from intelligence reports about specific targets, agents search the database in what one official described as a “24-7” operation. Customers’ names, bank account numbers and other identifying information can be retrieved, the officials said.

That terrorists clearly did not understand the net that had been thrown out –at least until last Friday– is also proven by Lichtblau’s own words. here are the key paragraphs:

The Swift data has provided clues to money trails and ties between possible terrorists and groups financing them, the officials said. In some instances, they said, the program has pointed them to new suspects, while in others it has buttressed cases already under investigation.

Among the successes was the capture of a Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, believed to be the mastermind of the 2002 bombing of a Bali resort, several officials said. The Swift data identified a previously unknown figure in Southeast Asia who had financial dealings with a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda; that link helped locate Hambali in Thailand in 2003, they said.

In the United States, the program has provided financial data in investigations into possible domestic terrorist cells as well as inquiries of Islamic charities with suspected of having links to extremists, the officials said.

The data also helped identify a Brooklyn man who was convicted on terrorism-related charges last year, the officials said. The man, Uzair Paracha, who worked at a New York import business, aided a Qaeda operative in Pakistan by agreeing to launder $200,000 through a Karachi bank, prosecutors said.

In terrorism prosecutions, intelligence officials have been careful to “sanitize,” or hide the origins of evidence collected through the program to keep it secret, officials said.

Hambali was called the Osama of Asia, a smart and deadly killer who had mastermined the Bali attack, the attack on the Marriott in Indonesia, and at the time of his capture in August, 2003 –due to Swift– was said to be planning suicide attacks on a summit of world leaders in Thailand scheduled for October of 2003.

Hambali’s organization clearly didn’t understand Swift’s reach, but it does now. And you can be sure it is going back as best it can over Hambali’s steps before capture to figure out the weak link that brought the mastermind to justice. Whatever mistake was made, it won’t be made again.

More to the point, the article alerts terrorists and their sympathizers of the degree of sophistication and sensitivity we have developed. There’s always –in every organization– a smartest guy and a dumbest guy. Now they know the dumbest guy can bring the end of the smartest guy with an ATM transaction or a Western Union payout, or a mosque wire-transfer from Saudi Arabia, or even a laundered New York ExIm transaction.

This was a world wide alert in cap letters, which included an aside that previous official accounts about how X or Y was captured “sanitized” the use of the Swift data.

Finally there is the shock effect of this story. Terror bosses around the globe might well have been sticklers for operational security and the use of non-bank measures, but there is always the grind on security that comes about when routine sets in.

It is why fire alarm batteries aren’t changed, or why “Top Secret” files are wrongly left on desks, or locks are left unlocked. People, even terrorist killers, get sloppy.

Every terrorist director of internal security got a gift last week. They got a road map with much better graphics and a prop for all their training sessions.

Eric Lichtblau and all who attempt to argue that “no harm was done” are simply unwilling to deal with their responsibility. To their recklessness must also be added an indifference to facts and logic that calls into question their basic competence.

By the way, the panel on Sunday’s Reliable Sources, hosted by the always fair Howard Kurtz, will be Lichtblau, former Des Moines Register editor and former Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser and columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post.

Normally a three-to-one MSM to new media line up wouldn’t be fair, but in this instance, the actions of the papers are so obviously wrong and so widely reviled, don’t be discouraged from watching.

UPDATE:

An e-mail from a smart guy:

greetings,

Not A Good Day, indeed.

let me add my .02….

while everything you say about the current situation is TRUE, however please allow me to suggest that the LONG TERM impact here is EVEN WORSE…

Since St. Jimmy sent St Stan down to Langley to show the Peasants how
“Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen” did Intelligence…

…we have increasingly made our National Intelligence infrastructure
subject to the whims and fancies of both Pop Culture and post-modern
Political Correctness, it has long been a point that anyone “bold” enough to suggest “Active Measures”, was treated as a Pariah, (i think this goes a long way to explaining the Situational Derangement of guys like Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer, who were reportedly for much more muscular counter-intelligence efforts from the late 80’s thru the late 90’s, all to no avail)

This produces situations where even Slick Willy thought that dropping a few dozen cruise missiles on goat herds in the middle of the desert passed for a legitimate response to a increasingly deadly opponent.

My Argument:

If the Times*2 do not experience ***GENUINE PAIN*** here, we will be
effectively giving a “pocket veto” over intelligence operations to the Main Stream Media, as conflict-adverse incumbents both elected and bureaucratic, will gauge all potential covert ops in terms of political blowback when the Op is blown in the MSM….

this will, i contend, in addition to fostering EVEN MORE caution amongst the Intelligence Mandarins regarding Ops, will effectively give a COST-FREE veto over Plans and Ops to every employee of an Intelligence Agency, who is willing to invest in a cellular phone call to a reporter from a MSM outlet willing to print/broadcast it…

And if Times*2 aren’t REALLY SPANKED HERE, that will be very, very many MSM entities….

Godspeed and Blue Skies!

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