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2006-06-27

Is Bush Administration’s Bank Spy Program One Part of a Resurgent Total Information Awareness?

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The Bush administration is lashing out at media outlets for their reports on the government’s secret monitoring of international bank transactions without court-approval. We speak with Georgetown law professor Jonathan Turley about Total Information Awareness–he says the program was never really killed. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is lashing out at The New York Times and other media outlets for their reports on the government’s secret monitoring of international bank transactions without court-approval. Speaking at the White House on Monday, President Bush strongly denounced the disclosure of the program and defended its legality.

  • President Bush:
    "Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."

The New York Times, followed by other news organizations, began publishing accounts of the program on Thursday evening. Vice President Dick Cheney singled out the Times for criticism saying "Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."

Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow went even farther in denouncing the media’s revelation of the program.

  • White House Press Secretary Tony Snow:
    "[T]he New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public’s right to know in some cases might override somebody’s right to live, and whether in fact the publications of these could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans."

The secret monitoring program was enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks in what government officials say is a crucial weapon in tracking the financing of terrorist activity. The banking information has been obtained from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. The organization helps direct trillions of dollars in daily international bank transfers. SWIFT executives apparently tried to withdraw from the program after becoming concerned over its legality. The executives were persuaded to continue their cooperation only after the intervention of top government officials.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times say the Bush administration lobbied them to withhold publication on the grounds public disclosure would harm national security. In a letters to readers on Sunday, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote "We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking at the White House Monday, President Bush strongly denounced the disclosure of the program and defended its legality.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times, followed by other news organizations, began publishing accounts of the program Thursday evening. Vice President Dick Cheney singled out the Times for criticism, saying, quote, "Some in the press, in particular the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs." Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow went even further in denouncing the media’s revelation of the program.

TONY SNOW: The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public’s right to know in some cases might override somebody’s right to live and whether in fact the publications of these could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: The secret monitoring program was enacted shortly after the 9/11 attacks and what government officials say is a crucial weapon in tracking the financing of terrorist activity. The banking information has been obtained from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. The organization helps direct trillions of dollars in daily international bank transfers. SWIFT’s executives apparently tried to withdraw from the program, after becoming concerned over its legality. The executives were persuaded to continue their cooperation, only after the intervention of top government officials.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times say the Bush administration lobbied them to withhold publication on the grounds public disclosure would harm national security. In letters to readers on Sunday, the New York Times Executive Editor, Bill Keller, wrote quote, "We believe the Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them."

Jonathan Turley joins us now on the phone from Washington, D.C.. He’s a Professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University and wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times about the bank monitoring program called "'Big Brother' Bush and Connecting the Data Dots." We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JONATHAN TURLEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I hope you’re not too water-logged right now in Washington, D.C.

JONATHAN TURLEY: In fact, I’m sitting in my water-logged basement. It flooded. So did my office. So it’s been something of Biblical proportions here in D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about what you call "'Big Brother' Bush and Connecting the Data Dots," talk about the program and then the attack on the press for reporting it.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, first of all, in terms of the program itself, you know, this is only the latest use of a massive databank by the government to engage in surveillance, surveillance involving individuals who do not have — the government does not have probable cause to show they’ve committed crimes. And in many ways, it harkens back to something that the administration wanted to do at the very beginning, when it started to take action after 9/11.

There was a program called T.I.A., Total Information Awareness, that was run by the DARPA office, and this was an effort to create the world’s largest computer system that could track citizens in real time, from their credit card purchases, medical records, anything that they did electronically. And it went for a very long time without public notice. When finally Congress put a stop to it, however, as usual the Senate left some big loopholes at the request of the administration. And many of us suspected that DARPA simply broke its system up into smaller parts and that T.I.A. never really did die.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, T.I.A., of course, was always connected to John Poindexter, right?

JONATHAN TURLEY: That’s right. And we found out recently that that does appear to be the case, that you have a sort of a spawn of DARPA that has been moved into various agencies. Now, this latest use of a databank is not a direct spawn of DARPA, but if you put it in the same context with all these other databanks that have been disclosed, including the world’s largest databank, the one used by the government, in which they got literally millions and millions of telephone call records, in terms of the numbers from the telecom companies — that’s the largest databank ever created. They’ve also been collecting information on emails. You have the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program. When you bring all of these various databanks together, including almost 200 private databank search engines that they’re using, you have effectively DARPA. That is, you have the administration creating a system that all you’d have to do is link it together and you’d have T.I.A.

And what it shows, I think, is an insatiable desire in this administration to create a transparent society, one which they can look in real time at any citizen they want and get instant information. And the great irony of that is, at the same time, they’re fighting transparency in government, that this administration has fought virtually any release of information from its own offices, even alleged criminal acts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Turley, Professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. Can you talk about the list of recent disclosures?

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, yes. I mean, first of all, the one that’s probably the most serious is the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program, which is defined in federal law as a crime. I mean, I’ve testified on this about four times in Congress. And there’s no mystery to this. The federal law makes it a federal crime to engage in this type of warrantless domestic surveillance. Even Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that it’s unlawful. But the problem is that both Democrats and Republicans have done nothing because they’re afraid of being viewed as soft on terrorism.

So you have senators who know that this president has ordered something that is defined as a federal crime, not once, but 30 times. And when he mentioned it in the State of the Union, they gave him a standing ovation. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. He basically told Congress that he’s openly violating the laws that they passed, and both Democrats and Republicans gave him a standing ovation.

Now, on top of that, you have the disclosure that we have been essentially contracting out; instead of having T.I.A., they went to private data miners, and they’ve been contracting out for them to use databanks on citizens, over 195 of those. We have the telecom databank, which is the largest in the world. We know of the financial transactions databank. We know that they’re following email information. It’s a very, very broad and deep use of databanks and electronic information that you just simply have to assemble, if you want to create the same thing they were trying to do with T.I.A.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the national Registered Traveler Program?

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, you know, that’s one of the things that I’ve been really hammering on, because citizens have not really been made aware of this. You know, the former publisher Steven Brill has created this private company, in which citizens — they started at, I think, Orlando airport — where citizens will give private information to his company, and then he’ll arrange with the government and the airports for you to get through security faster. And the fact is that he’s going to create this massive databank, which eventually, I assure you, the government will have access to.

But what’s really insidious about it is that it’s an effort to get citizens to give up information, subject themselves to background searches, just so that they’re not inconvenienced for a few minutes going through a security standpoint. That’s how cheap privacy has become in this country. And it’s a very, very dangerous program.

But the other thing that makes it dangerous is that it’s something that terrorists would love. The terrorists on 9/11, many of them were sleepers. Many of our most serious attacks have been sleeper agents, people who have stayed in the United States. You know, these people had wallets filled with false I.D.s. In Canada, the people in the Canadian terror cell, these were all longtime Canadians with every possible I.D. They would make Steven Brill’s preferred traveler, Registered Traveler Program. So you’re having people who are making a lot of money on this homeland security thing, but I think that not only are they not making us safer, they’re really driving a stake in the heart of privacy in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Turley, we have to go to break. When we come back, I want to ask you about the administration’s argument that they are making us safer and that there are certain liberties that have to be given up in order to track terrorists, but also about the attack now on the New York Times and any media outlet that exposes these programs. We’re talking to Professor Turley at George Washington University.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jonathan Turley, Professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University, in his flooded basement in Washington, D.C., where the water runs deep. Professor Turley, there is a serious crackdown now, or at least tremendous anger expressed by the Bush administration, the new White House press spokesperson, who comes from FOX, Tony Snow, about the New York Times, about the media outlets that have exposed once again one of these monitoring programs, saying they’re simply there in the service of terrorists.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, you know, I actually testified at the hearing on this issue, about possibly prosecuting journalists under national security laws, and this was in front of the House Intelligence Committee a couple of weeks ago. There was not a lot of support that I could see broadly on that committee for this type of action, although, as you know, Peter King from New York recently said that he wants to see possible prosecution of the New York Times. It’s extremely dangerous.

And the reason is quite simple: Congress has entirely vanished from any role in government. That is, in the last — I think the 109th Congress will go down as the congress that never existed. There will be no evidence that it ever played a role in governing. So we have no oversight being done by Congress. And what’s fascinating is that at that House hearing, I said, you know — when the chairman asked me, you know, "Why do we have all these whistleblowers? And I said, "Because they think that you’re a joke. They think this committee is a joke. You’re not doing any oversight. You haven’t done oversight in over ten years." And what’s amazing is that three of the committee members immediately agreed and said on the record, "It’s true. We haven’t done oversight in over ten years."

So, the only check-and-balance we have left is the media. That is, we didn’t find out about the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program, which is a federal crime, we didn’t find that out from members of Congress, we found it out from the media, just as we have found out various other important stories that have led to reforms, like the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. All of those came from the media. And if you want to point to one single institution that has guaranteed good government in our history, it’s the media. Now, that doesn’t mean that the media doesn’t make mistakes. It does. But pound for pound, the media has done more to improving government than any other institution. But more importantly, they’re all we’ve got right now.

There’s a reason why the administration has been threatening prosecution of journalists. Because they’re the only ones left. They’ve got Congress totally in a comatose state. They have — most of the judges today are so conservative that they won’t even consider challenges to national security arguments. And it leaves basically the media and the public.

AMY GOODMAN: You had Republican Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, at first expressing outrage, for example, over the N.S.A. spying and saying he was going to subpoena telecom executives why they were giving over information, but then he completely backed off.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Yeah, I’m so disappointed in Specter. But Specter, you know, this is par for the course with Specter. You know, he correctly, as many people did, said that the N.S.A. program was completely unlawful. He correctly noted that he wanted information from telecoms, that Congress had never authorized it. But then, the White House continually gets to him, and he just backs down.

I mean, the best example of that is the N.S.A. domestic surveillance program. I mean, here’s a guy who came out first to say, 'Wow! This is totally, absolutely, undeniably illegal.' And his response was to put this piece of legislation, which, by the way, many Democrats are supporting, which would give the President the authority that he essentially took, but more importantly, would protect the White House from any judicial review by putting this into the secret court. So this is the first time I know of, where instead of having unlawful conduct bend to the law, Specter is going to have the law bend to the unlawful conduct.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Jonathan Turley, of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. We’re talking about not only the latest expose, which involves monitoring international financial transactions, but also all of the programs going back to Total Information Awareness. President Bush has argued this is the way to track money of terrorists, and if they know about it, they’re not going to use this system. Your response, Professor Turley?

JONATHAN TURLEY: Well, first of all, I think that this program has some merit to it. I mean, I think that it makes a lot of sense to follow this type of money. But you have to do it legally. You know, the key about being a system of laws, believing in the rule of law, is that it often matters how you do something, not just whether you do something. And here we’ve got another massive program that was never authorized by Congress.

But more importantly, I got to tell you, I just doubt that there was no inkling that finances were being followed by the Bush administration. My assumption is that terrorists are fully aware that this administration is using every means possible. And, you know, I just — I cannot believe that suddenly in some cave in Afghanistan someone went, "Oh, my god! He’s violating another law! Quick, let’s move our finances!" Even intelligence officials have said that long ago terrorists moved to a more informal banking system used in the Middle East, because they believed they were being tracked.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jonathan Turley, I want to thank you very much for being with us again, Professor of Constitutional Law at George Washington University. I hope you’re able to dry out your basement and office.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Thank you very much.

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