Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Playing "gotcha" with the Grey Lady -- and yours truly

A few days ago, writer William Tate published an article on the American Thinker website asserting that the New York Times, which aggressively pursued the story of warrantless surveillance by the Bush Administration after 9/11, had defended a similar program, Echelon, under the Clinton administration. This, he claimed, showed a blatant double standard favoring a Democratic administration. This article was widely picked up in the conservative blogosphere, and even ended up as a column in the New York Post. After examining the article, I found it to be full of sloppy reasoning and sloppier facts. Now, Mr. Tate responds to my "fisking."

After being sent a link to Mr. Tate's new article, I was puzzled by its title: "NY Times Hypocrisy: The Empire Strikes Back." What empire? But the mystery was cleared up when I started reading. Mr. Tate, apparently, thinks -- or at least insinuates -- that my humble blogpost represents nothing less than a counterstrike by the Grey Lady herself. Why? Because, you see, I write a column for The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Company, and Mr. Tate detects a nefarious motive here. (One of his readers actually emailed me today asking if the Times paid me to write my blogpost.)

Well, I can offer Mr. Tate a scoop: my column is not only published by the Times-owned Boston Globe, it's also distributed by the New York Times syndicate. Which does not, by the way, stop me from repeatedly criticizing the Times on my blog (and in my column); in fact, the day after I fisked Mr. Tate's article, I took a whack at the Times for downplaying the news that, contrary to initial reports, the victims of Hurricane Katrina were not disproportionately black and poor. I have criticized the Times so often that it did not even occur to me, on the rare occasion when I defended it, that my Globe column could be seen as a conflict of interest.

Now, on to the substance.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Mr. Tate's elisions and truncated sentences are misleading, and limit myself to facts.

Let's begin at the end. Mr. Tate mocks my argument that the principal reason the New York Times gave far less coverage to the Echelon story in the 1990s than to the Bush domestic surveillance story today is that claims of domestic surveillance under Clinton were not backed by any proof:

That’s certainly an interesting reason for the Times not to have given Echelon the same scrutiny it’s given the current story: it’s hard to prove. They won’t admit what they’re doing. We’ll just drop it.

Did the the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse not work?

Allow me to clarify, then. In the 1990s, it's not simply that there was no proof that the NSA was engaging in illegal domestic surveillance; there weren't even any specific allegations that it was doing so. There were only assertions that it had the capability to spy on Americans' private communications, and speculations that it could be doing that -- all strenuously denied by NSA officials. There were no charges to investigate.

By contrast, the New York Times story about the eavesdropping program authorized by the Bush administration was based on fairly specific information about actual NSA operations of questionable legality, provided by about a dozen officials. The Bush Administration admitted this -- not, I suspect, because of a congenital inability to tell a lie, but because the Times had the goods -- and offered a dubious legal justification for the program.

Mr. Tate writes:

Ms. Young then concludes her defense of the Times’ coverage of Echelon by citing coverage–in the Washington Post, not the Times–in which Clinton era officials assured that all regulations regarding surveillance were being met. The Bush administration has also maintained that its surveillance is legal. Did the Times just drop that story?

Big difference. Clinton-era officials gave assurances that they were obeying the usual rules. The Bush administration admits that it changed the rules (to allow monitoring of international calls and emails originating in the United States without FISA warrants) but claims that the congressional resolution authorizing the President to use military force in the wake of 9/11 had somehow also authorized him to order such a change in surveillance policies. "We're playing by the rules" and "we've changed the rules, but we believe we had the right to do that" are two very different things.

Incidentally, I am not opposed to the NSA monitoring the cell phone conversations and emails of Americans who have a habit of chatting with Al Qaeda operatives. I think the NSA would be highly remiss if it did not monitor such contacts. But I am troubled and, frankly, disgusted by the fact that the Bush Administration never bothered to either obtain FISA warrants (which are routinely granted upon request) or to seek specific congressional authorization for warrantless surveillance if that was truly necessary. This mentality shows an arrogance of power that no American, regardless of party affiliation, should want to see in the White House. (And, God knows, I am not claiming that the Clinton Administration was innocent of this sin.)

Mr. Tate suggests that Patrick Poole's report on Echelon, referenced in the New York Times story that he believes was a whitewash of Echelon, documents abuses that the Times story disregarded:

ECHELON is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission. The regular discovery of domestic surveillance targeted at American civilians for reasons of ‘unpopular’ political affiliation or for no probable cause at all….

That line is, in fact, found in the report. The problem (for Tate) is that none of the specific instances Poole cites are from the Clinton era. Here's Poole's summary, from the introduction, of his section on domestic spying:

Since the close of World War II, the US intelligence agencies have developed a consistent record of trampling the rights and liberties of the American people. Even after the investigations into the domestic and political surveillance activities of the agencies that followed in the wake of the Watergate fiasco, the NSA continues to target the political activity of “unpopular” political groups and our duly elected representatives. One whistleblower charged in a 1988 Cleveland Plain Dealer interview that, while she was stationed at the Menwith Hill facility in the 1980s, she heard real-time intercepts of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. A former Maryland Congressman, Michael Barnes, claimed in a 1995 Baltimore Sun article that under the Reagan Administration his phone calls were regularly intercepted, which he discovered only after reporters had been passed transcripts of his conversations by the White House. One of the most shocking revelations came to light after several GCHQ officials became concerned about the targeting of peaceful political groups and told the London Observer in 1992 that the ECHELON dictionaries targeted Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and even Christian ministries.

By the way, all these reports of pre-1992 spying, presumably under Reagan and Bush the Elder, got no resonance in the major media, supposedly so hell-bent on nailing Republicans.

Since I am revisiting Mr. Tate's article, I will point out another major flaw that I didn't notice until a commenter on my first post, Taylor Barnes, pointed it out.

Mr. Tate notes that the Times article also referenced a European Union report on Echelon, and says:

One of the revelations of that study was that the N.S.A. used partner countries’ intelligence agencies to routinely circumvent legal restrictions against domestic spying.
Here is the paragraph from the EU report that he cites in support of this claim:

“For example, [author Nicky] Hager has described how New Zealand officials were instructed to remove the names of identifiable UKUSA citizens or companies from their reports, inserting instead words such as ‘a Canadian citizen’ or ‘a US company’. British Comint [Communications intelligence] staff have described following similar procedures in respect of US citizens following the introduction of legislation to limit NSA’s domestic intelligence activities in 1978.”

However, the paragraph preceding this one makes clear that this is an example not of circumventing the laws, but of following them:

Dissemination is further restricted within the UKUSA organisation by national and international rules generally stipulating that the Sigint agencies of each nation may not normally collect or (if inadvertently collected) record or disseminate information about citizens of, or companies registered in, any other UKUSA nation. Citizens and companies are collectively known as "legal persons". The opposite procedure is followed if the person concerned has been targeted by their national Comint organisation.

In other words, the names were removed precisely in order to comply with 1978 legislation. Whether Mr. Tate is deliberately obfuscating or simply has no clue what he's talking about, I don't know.

In my blogpost, I noted that Mr. Tate was using the disclosures of retired Canadian intelligence agent Mike Frost on 60 Minutes to prove "under the Clinton administration, evidence existed ... that an invasive, extensive domestic eavesdropping program was aimed at every U.S. citizen" -- even though Frost (1) was Canadian, and (2) had not worked actively in intelligence since 1990.

Mr. Tate replies:

Ms. Young is correct in pointing out that, Mike Frost, a source used by the 60 Minutes story quoted in my article and whom I called merely “a former spy”, worked for Canadian intelligence. But if she considers that a major flaw, she has ignored a key element of my article. The European Union study of the Echelon program explained that the NSA and intelligence agencies in allied countries routinely circumvented restrictions against domestic surveillance by asking their sister agencies in the other countries to do the spying and provide them the analysis. Thus, a Canadian spy would be likely to listen in on a U.S. conversation and then provide details to the NSA.

The link Ms. Young included to cite that Mr. Frost retired in 1989 is an article from something called “Peace Researcher” which says “he hasn’t actively spied since about 1990.”

(In your words, Ms. Young, “Sometimes it helps to check the links before trumpeting a story.”) Even though I identified Frost as retired at the time of the 60 Minutes interview, the programs he described were still active–and were likely accelerated–during the Clinton administration, according to the EU study.

Actually, I myself noted (in an edit added to my post moments after it was made) that since Echelon was a collaboration between the intelligence agencies of several countries including Canada, it's possible that this alleged incident happened in the U.S. On the other point, I said that Frost retired in 1990, not 1989. (And what difference does it make anyway, since Clinton took office in 1992?)

Does the EU report say that the NSA used other countries' intelligence agencies for domestic political spying? Yes -- in 1967-1975. As I have already explained, the paragraph Mr. Tate cites to prove that Comint countries used sister intelligence agencies to circumvent rules against domestic spying in later years proves nothing of the sort. Nor could I find any assertion in the EU report that Echelon programs were "likely accelerated" during the Clinton administration. Perhaps Mr. Tate is referring to this statement:

Although precise details of US space-based Sigint satellites launched after 1990 remain obscure, it is apparent from observation of the relevant ground centres that collection systems have expanded rather than contracted.

But the report also says this:

Although UKUSA Comint agency staffs and budgets have shrunk following the end of the cold war, they have reaffirmed their requirements for access to all the world's communications.

(Emphasis added.)

Finally, Mr. Tate detects bias in the fact that a 1997 Insight magazine story claiming that the Clinton administration had authorized spying on Asian and Pacific leaders during a summit and sold the surveillance data to corporations that were major Democratic Party donors received no follow-up:

Exactly my point, Ms. Young. The story, apparently, wasn’t pursued by the Times or any mainstream outlet. Can you imagine the outcry at the Times if the Bush White House were accused of selling secret intelligence for campaign donations?

But the story also wasn't pursued by The Wall Street Journal, by Fox News (which was not as yet the powerhouse it is today but had been around for over a year), by any of the conservative magazines that exhaustively investigated Clinton campaign finance abuses, or by Republicans in Congress. If Lexis/Nexis is correct, it wasn't even reported in Insight's sister publication, The Washington Times. Let's face it, there was no shortage of people during the 1990s who had a strong interest in exposing Clinton scandals. If none of them judged it worthwhile to go after this story, this strongly suggests that there's no "there" there. Which, by the way, accurately sums up Mr. Tate's article as well.

A final word about why I decided to undertake the task of refuting Mr. Tate's article. I believe that there is, in fact, a liberal bias in the major media. The "new media," including the blogs, have performed a highly valuable service in dissecting, debunking, and acting as checks and balances to the so-called MSM. But there is also a lot of hysteria and paranoia about "the MSM." Such paranoia does no one any good, and neither does dishonesty.

Note: The first paragraph of this post was edited for clarity at 10:05 a.m., Wednesday, January 18.


Joan said...

One of the reasons I read here is because I don't always agree with you, Cathy -- but I know that you always back up your arguments with evidence and logical reasoning. It's human nature for us to get defensive when someone criticizes us, and so I can understand why your original "Grey Lady" post provoked the response it did. I also understand (since you explicitly explained it...) why you took the trouble to write this post in response. As much as I could believe that media bias at the NYT was behind "different treatments" of the two spying programs, your initial post showed clearly that was not the case, and now you have shored up your arguments even more.

I think, though, that now is a good time to let this go... there should be a widely published Law of Diminishing Fisk Returns, which states that, after the initial fisking, each subsequent fisk is markedly less effective, and exponentially more tedious.

Cathy Young said...

Joan -- agreed. I have no intention of returning to this. Life is too short for more than two rounds of fisking.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say I found this, and the prior one, to be very useful articles.

I find your writing a breath of fresh air after all of the nakedly partisan bloggers.

As an engineer, I intuitively like the minimax suggested by Joan, but the sorts of distortions and nearly smarmy insinuations from Tate did demand a response.

Cathy Young said...

Amp: I am not am employee of the New York Times. Actually, I'm not an employee of anyone -- I'm a free-lance writer whose column is published regularly by The Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times.

The two newspapers are separate.

Under the Globe's editorial policy, columnists are not allowed to criticize other Globe writers so that the page does not become a forum for internecine wars. However, I was explicitly told after the Globe was acquired by the NYTimes Corp. that there is no such restriction as far as criticism of the Times or Times columnists goes. In other words, I can't go after Bob Kuttner or Jeff Jacoby in my columns, but Paul Krugman, David Brooks or Maureen Dowd are fair game.

Incidentally, Neal Gabler, a regular on the Fox News Presswatch show and, I assume, a Fox employee, slammed O'Reilly and Gibson pretty hard over the "War on Christmas" campaign.

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