Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Leaks and prizes

For a while we thought that we should not bother to write about the sacked CIA officer Mary McCarthy who is alleged to have leaked classified information to friendly journalists, in particular Pulitzer Prize winner Dana Priest of the Washington Post. This was, we thought, a matter of private grief and we should not intrude on it.

However, certain aspects of the story do impinge on our various themes and, indeed, follow on from subjects we have written about before.

In the first place, there is the Pulitzer Prize itself, though this is a minor issue. As we have pointed out before, the New York Times and the Washington Post figured heavily in its lists. Yet the one journalist who has done astonishing work to bring some illumination to a murky subject, the UN’s oil-for-food scandal, Claudia Rossett was not even among the finalists.

As the New York Post puts it

“Instead, the Pulitzer Prize committee has lately preferred the work of reporters who endeavor effectively to undermine the U.S. government's antiterrorism efforts.

Dana Priest of The Washington Post won the "Beat Reporting" award "for her persistent, painstaking reports on secret 'black site' prisons and other controversial features of the government's counterterrorism campaign." Her report led the E.U. to demand that these European nations cease assisting the United States.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times won the "National Reporting" award "for their carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty." (Ever since, federal officials have reported a dropoff in the terrorist calls they were monitoring.)

Long gone are the days when journalists paid respect to the notion of national security. Now, journalism's most prestigious awards seem to encourage the opposite: undermining national security for the sake of individual self-aggrandizement.

Maybe it's a greater honor that Rosett didn't receive a Pulitzer.”

That is probably right but there are a few other issues here. An important one is that Dana Priest’s “persistent, painstaking reporting” seems to be based on leaked information given to her in cosy conversations with at least one CIA agent and very little else.

Ms Priest herself is saying nothing, though, presumably she may be subpoenaed at some point, possibly not to reveal that there may have been others in the CIA ready to chatter to her in pursuance of their political agenda. The agenda that they are not supposed to have.

The Mary McCarthy story is unfolding with new aspects being revealed almost every hour and I do not propose to go into it. Here is a good summary of it all but there are many others.

She has, incidentally, made a statement through her lawyer that denied being the source of the Priest story. It seems she might be interviewed later on today on TV.

There has already been an unseemly scrabble on the left to defend what, by any country’s laws, is a crime – revelation of classified information by an intelligence officer - and, naturally, comparisons with the Plame case. Apart from the fact that nothing secret was revealed in that affair, if it turns out that the President authorized certain information, that is not a leak. The President, elected by the people to that position, is the ultimate arbiter of what is and what is not classified information.

As today’s Wall Street Journal points out, the McCarthy case is part of the continuing and disgraceful saga of the CIA warring with the elected administration of the United States. They call it an insurgency and that is the right description.

“Leaving partisanship aside, this ought to be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about democratic government. The CIA leakers are arrogating to themselves the right to subvert the policy of a twice-elected Administration. Paul Pillar, another former CIA analyst well known for opposing Mr. Bush while he was at Langley, appears to think this is as it should be. He recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that the intelligence community should be treated like the Federal Reserve and have independent political status. In other words, the intelligence community should be a sort of clerisy accountable to no one.”

This is something we know about – unelected officials and bureaucrats trying to become part of the political game. One of the most egregious examples in this country was the gaggle of Chief Constables lobbying MPs over the 90 day detention clause.

Add to that the spectacle of former generals (none too successful, some of them) calling for the resignation of the Secretary for Defence, appointed by the elected President, according to the constitutional rules of the United States and you begin to get a picture of an attempt by Democrat appointees (for such they are) trying to turn the American government into something that might resemble the managerial governance developing on this side of the Pond.

One of the oddest parts of the McCarthy story is that she was working in a very special part of the CIA most recently (after her spectacular career that may have contributed to the inefficiency of the agency had stymied after 2000), which investigated alleged misdemeanours by agents. In other words, if she were really so worried about certain events and developments, she was in a particularly good position to do something about it legitimately. Instead, she seems to have chosen an illegitimate course of action and, one cannot help feeling, that the reasons for that were purely political.

(Ms McCarthy and her husband are strong Democrat supporters and have contributed reasonable sums to the party and, specifically, to the Kerry campaign. That is their right but it is not her right to let her politics affect her loyalty to the elected administration, which should be taken for granted.)

There is another aspect to the story that affects us. Dana Priest’s “revelations” have put a severe strain on relations between the United States and its supposed European allies. In fact, they were carefully published to coincide Secretary of State Rice’s visit to Europe.

Since then there have been all sorts of stories about the supposed CIA camps and about alleged terrorists being “rendered” from various European airports. If these stories were true then there can be no question that the European governments and European intelligence officials would have known about it all.

But are they true? This is the question we must ask ourselves. (It doesn’t really matter to the Pulitzer Prize judges, as they have awarded that prize wrongfully so often, one more will hardly matter.)

According to this Associated Press report,

“Investigations into reports that US agents shipped prisoners through European airports to secret detention centers have produced no evidence of illegal CIA activities, the European Union's antiterrorism coordinator said yesterday.

The investigations also have not turned up any proof of secret renditions of terror suspects on EU territory, Gijs de Vries told a European Parliament committee investigating the allegations.”

Now this may or may not be correct and there are dark mutterings of absence of evidence not being evidence of absence. But the truth is that at some point absence of evidence does become evidence of absence or judicial systems have to collapse or mutate into something closer to the Soviet one.

The MEPs on the committee are casting doubt on Mr de Vries’s evidence.

“De Vries came under sharp criticism from the EU parliamentarians for refusing to consider earlier testimonies from a German and a Canadian who described to the committee how they were kidnapped and imprisoned by foreign agents, and from a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who alleged that British intelligence services used information obtained under torture.

''There is so much circumstantial evidence, you can't close your eyes from the fact that this is probably happening," Dutch deputy and civil liberties activist Kathalijne Buitenweg said.”

Probably happening is not, I fear, quite good enough. How would the civil liberties activist like it if individuals, whose fate she was interested in were imprisoned on "probable" evidence?

If the German and the Canadian (surely they are merely German or Canadian citizens) have some direct evidence then that should outweigh Mr de Vries’s references to “all kinds of allegations, impressions”. The same applies to that British ambassador. Does he or does he not have evidence or is he merely playing the same game the CIA is: undermining the elected government?

Let us say, the jury is out on that one but if evidence does not appear soon, we shall have to accept that Dana Priest’s story was not altogether accurate. There is a theory that this was a sting engineered by the CIA bosses to find out who was doing the leaking. Possibly, though that sounds a little too complicated.

The Pulitzer Prize will stay with Ms Priest and Ms McCarthy will be elevated to the status of a secular heroine and all on the basis of what? Dubious information, subversion of the state and attempted arrogation of power from the elected administration.

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