Sunday, July 02, 2006

The basic logic surrounding the controversy of reporting espionage programs in the newspapers

Sometimes, it is more useful to look at the logic of an argument than immerse oneself in the political bantering surrounding the propositions under dispute. Such is the case with the New Times, L. A. Times, and Wall Street Journal publication of stories about the financial monitoring of banking records to apprehend terrorists.

Let's look at the basic argument coming from certain members of Congress and the Bush Administration.

P1: Revealing espionage secrets is illegal.
P2: The NYT, LAT, and WSJ revealed espionage secrets.
C These newspapers ought to be prosecuted for revealing espionage secrets.

A related argument goes like this.

P1: Revealing espionage secrets hampers the government's ability to apprehend terrorists.
P2: The NYT, LAT, and WSJ revealed espionage secrets.
C: These newspapers have hampered the government's ability to apprehend terrorists.

First, we note the Humean issue of deriving an ought from an is in the first argument. Let's put that controversial philosophical issue aside, for something more grave is wrong with the argument.

Second, we note P2 is the same in both arguments.

What savages both arguments is that P2 is patently false. None of the accused newspapers revealed anything of substance regarding financial espionage that was not already known. Many people from around the world have participated in the program. The Bush Administration has briefed reporters on the program hoping they would write stories about how the Administration is on-the-job fighting terrorism. President Bush in a 2004 campaign speech in Hershey, PA proudly announced that his Administration was using the same financial monitoring techniques to fight terrorists as they do fighting white collar crime. The list goes on. P2 does not stand up to scrutiny.

What that means is that even if you consider the arguments valid, they are unsound because one of their premises is false.

What the contentious newspaper articles did reveal is that the financial monitoring, like other espionage programs recently in the news, fail reasonable tests of prudent oversight and protection expected from democracies with bills of rights. Even this is irrelevant though because P2 is false. It is a separate issue.

Totally tangential and irrelevant to the arguments and propositions under dispute is who is trying to gain political advantage from what. It is a so called free country where gaining political advantage has both a proud and checkered history.


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