Politics & Policy

They’re Just More Important Than You Are

Are any secrets more important than the New York Times's sources?

The echo trails off the last defiantly gleeful chorus of “We Are the World.” Reality stubbornly dawns on you: There really are bad people out there. They are the world, too. And they want to kill you.

They refuse to be reasoned with. They can afford to. They’re not a country. They don’t have to worry about defending a territory. They are seeped into places that can’t be bombed into submission. They are the world, after all. They are the children — or at least hidden among them. No “Mutually Assured Destruction” here.

No, you have only one defense: Intelligence. Superpower power is useless. What are you gonna do? Hit them where they live? Bomb Hamburg? Bomb London? Bomb New York?

Not an option. Your nukes, stealth fighters, carpet bombers … they’re largely irrelevant. This is not about killing an advancing brigade. It’s about killing cells. A handful of operatives here and there, nestled among millions of innocents.

The real challenge is not how to kill them — or at least capture them. It’s how to find them. How to identify them from among the hordes they dress like, sound like, and even act like … right up until the moment they board a plane. Or wave cheerily alongside a naval destroyer. Or park their nondescript van in the catacombs of a mighty skyscraper.

The only way to prevent terrorist attacks is to gather intelligence. It is to collect the information that reveals who the jihadists are, who is backing them with money and resources, and where they are likely to strike. There is nothing else.

How do you get such intelligence? Your options are few. The terrorists you capture, you squeeze until they break. Since your laws and protocols forbid physical coercion, you must employ psychological pressure — relentless detachment and loneliness that may render a battle-hard, hate-obsessed detainee hopeless enough and dependent enough on his interrogators to tell you the deepest, deadliest secrets. So you move your captives to places where they will be isolated, and forlorn, and … eventually — maybe after a very long time — moved to tell you what they know about their fellow savages.

Otherwise, you use your technological wizardry to penetrate their communications. You use your mastery of the global web that is modern finance to find the money and follow it — until you can pierce the veiled charities and masked philanthropists behind the terror dollars. Until you strangle the supply lines that convert hatred into action.

All the while, you never underestimate your enemies. You know they are clever, resourceful, and adaptive. You know they study you, just as you are studying them. More effectively, in fact. After all, when you find their vulnerabilities, there is still due process. When they find yours, there is murder. Mass murder.

Life or death. Which one it will be turns solely on intelligence and secrecy. Can you find out how they next intend to kill you, can you stop them, and can you prevent them from knowing how you know … so you can stop them again?

Simple as that. Modernity has changed many things, but it hasn’t changed that. In command of the first American military forces, and facing a deadly enemy, George Washington himself observed that the “necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged…. [U]pon Secrecy, Success depends in Most Enterprises … and for want of it, they are generally defeated.”

What on earth would George Washington have made of Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and his comrades in today’s American media?

What would he have made of transparently politicized free-speech zealots who inform for the enemy and have the nerve to call it “patriotism.”

Who say, “If you try to isolate barbarians to make them hand up the other barbarians, we will expose it.”

“If you try to intercept enemy communications — as victorious militaries have done in every war ever fought — we will tell all the world, including the enemy, exactly what you’re up to.”

“If you track the enemy’s finances, we will blow you out of the water. We’ll disclose just what you’re doing and just how you’re doing it. Even if it’s saving innocent lives.”

And why this last? Remember five years ago, back when they figured “you’re not doing enough” was the best way to bash the Bush administration? Remember the Times and its ilk — disdainful of aggressive military responses — tut-tutting about how the disruption of money flows was the key to thwarting international terrorists. So why compromise that?

Is there some illegality going on in the government’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (exposed by the Times and other news outlets Friday)? No, no laws have been broken. Is there some abuse of power? No, there seem to have been extraordinary steps taken to inform relevant officials and win international cooperation. Why then? Why take action that can only aid and comfort the enemy in wartime?

Because, Keller haughtily pronounced, American methods of monitoring enemy money transfers are “a matter of public interest.”

Really? The Times prattles on about what it claims is a dearth of checks and balances, but what are the checks and balances on Bill Keller? Can it be that our security hinges on whether the editor of an antiwar, for-profit journal thinks some defense measure might be interesting?

Well, here’s something truly interesting: There are people in the U.S. intelligence community who are revealing the nation’s most precious secrets.

The media aspire to be the public’s watchdog? Ever on the prowl to promote good government? Okay, here we have public officials endangering American lives. Public officials whose violation of a solemn oath to protect national defense information is both a profound offense against honor and a serious crime.

What about the public interest in that? What about the public interest in rooting out those who betray their country in wartime?

Not on your life.

National-security secrets? All fair game. If it’s about how we detain, or infiltrate, or defang the monsters pledged to kill us, the New York Times reserves the right to derail us any time it finds such matters … interesting.

But the media’s own sources? That, and that alone, is sacrosanct. Worth protecting above all else.

National-security secrets, after all, are merely the public treasure that keeps us alive. Press informants are the private preserve of the media.

And they’re just more important than you are.

 

 Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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