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Fat Steve's Archives

| Friday, July 29, 2005

      So, the second installment of my look at Byron Calame, The New York Times's public editor.  (And my apologies for not making my self-imposed daily deadine).

        Calame's second column concerned a story the Times did about
      the Central Intelligence Agency's covert air operations for transporting suspected terrorists
which appeared on Page 1 on May 31st, 2005.  The column named the charter airline company the CIA uses when it transports prisoners, had pictures of planes with tale numbers visible and quite a lot of information that would make it easy to spot CIA operations.  There was a great deal of criticism:
      The generally strident e-mail messages demanded to know why The Times had decided to publish information that the readers believe will aid terrorists and make life in the United States less safe for everyone -- especially the people carrying out the operation. Most of them didn't seem to be aware that the once-secret air operations had been mentioned in earlier articles and broadcasts elsewhere.

      The root of the airline story appears to have been the Sept. 26th, 2002 detention of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was flying from Tunisia to Montreal, with a change of planes in New York.  Arar was alleged to be an al-Qaeda member, and had possible criminal charges pending in his native Syria.  He was apparently being investigated by Canadian security, who seem to have tipped off U.S. officials that Arar was on the plane.  Arar was detained, then shipped to Syria around Oct. 7-10th, 2002.  Syria said he was part of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, an illegal Islamist organization.  In Syria, he was held for a year, then released him to Canada.  Arar claims the Syrians tortured him, and sued the U.S. government.

      The Arar case seems to have been what brought the practice of rendition to light.  The first specific mention of rendition I've found is a Village Voice story from March, 2004, which reports on testimony then-CIA director George Tenet gave Congress.  The story claims the practice started in 1989, and the Beeb notes that Clinton authorized its use in terrorism cases in the '90s.  The focus on planes seems to have started with a 60 Minutes story in March of this year, which focused on a Swedish case.  The New York Times then decided to get into the act.

      The Times story was bylined by SCOTT SHANE, STEPHEN GREY and MARGOT WILLIAMS.  Scott Shane wrote an e-mail to one irate reader which was laterly used as a form letter for everyone who complained.  Calame reprinted the e-mail in his column:
      Your criticism of our article on C.I.A. air operations is a thoughtful one.

In English — We got your letter, which we can't be bothered to respond to individually, but we'll fake it.
      Writing about secret intelligence operations is always a balancing act, and reasonable people can draw the line in different places as to how much the citizens who pay for the intelligence agencies should be told about what those agencies are doing.

      Here we see the media's conceit that they are always reasonable.  Note that the vast majority of readers thought they were egregiously out of line.
      The C.I.A.'s practice of rendition has come to light almost exclusively through analysis of the agency's air operations, starting with plane-spotting hobbyists who routinely post airplane tail numbers and photos on the Web.  Media coverage of those rendition cases in many countries has started an important debate about the wisdom and competence of the agency in carrying them out.  But no such debate could take place if the press did not aggressively seek to find out what the agency is doing and inform the public about it.

      What pathetic lies.  As noted, the press first became aware of rendition in 2002, then focused on the mechanics of it recently.  As for the "important debate about the wisdom and competence" of renditions, how does telling me where a charter airline is located help me understand the "wisdom and competence" of the rendition?  Is Shane implying that if the charter company were in a different location, the renditions would seem more or less wise?
      Perhaps it's the result of my having worked as a correspondent in the Soviet Union for a few years, but I think there's a strong case that excessive government secrecy leads to waste and abuse, and that an aggressive press improves the effectiveness of intelligence agencies in the long run.

      'Yeah ma'am, just trying to help the government work better.'  Who does he think he's kidding?  This is, remember, the same paper that screamed for blood about the 'outing' of Valerie Plame as a CIA employee.  Now, it has outed an entire cover company, but that's because the government was using excesive secrecy.  FEH!

      Well, perhaps, in the long run, the CIA will hide stuff from the press with greater effectiveness.  I hope so, anyway.
  In this case, if reporters using public information can penetrate these air operations, I suspect foreign intelligence services, or Al Qaeda operatives, would have little difficulty doing so.

      Well, a moment ago we were talking of excessive secrecy, now it's inadequate secrecy.  Make up you mind.

Our story was based on information from public F.A.A. and corporate records and F.A.A.  flight plan data available to all from commercial vendors.  Before our story was published, the tail numbers, and photographs, of several of the rendition planes could be found easily via a Google search on the Web.

      Ah, the story is harmless, because it's old news.  Yeah, that's why they put it on page one.  And the name and location of the air charter company was not known, as well as many other details.  The Times made it easier for terrorists to know what the CIA is up to.
      In addition, a summary of the planned story was provided to the C.I.A. several days prior to publication, and no request was made to withhold any of its contents.

      And Robert Novak called the CIA before he did the Plame story, and they didn't tell him not to say that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.  The CIA has a policy of not commenting about certain issues.  That doesn't mean they consider their publication OK.


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