Thursday, May 04, 2006

Free Speech And National Security


As usual, the New York Times remains the epitome of duplicity. Readers will remember how the NYT thought it only fitting, indeed an absolute requirement, that the government should appoint a Special Prosecutor to find out who “outed” Valerie Plame and to punish them forthwith. Unfortunately for the NYT, that prosecutor could not find an actual violation of Plame’s rights, and chose to expand his search to nail anybody he could, just to show some kind of results. That led to “Scooter” Libby, and the less-than-solid claim that Libby broke the law in what he said to the press. The hitch there begins with the obvious possibility that a person may honestly recall details differently when a long time has passed, and continues with the obvious possibility that a prosecutor who cannot find a target within the scope of his stated authority, might feel pressured to “make” a case for the sake of face. But this also brings the guns back around, this time to track the New York Times itself. Turns out the NYT may well have violated the Espionage Act by disclosing details of the NSA surveillance of Al Qaeda communications, especially phone calls to and from the United States.

For here, I will simply say that from where I stand, Libby is innocent of the charges leveled against him, while if charged the NYT would be guilty as hell. The question of whether the government will proceed with charging the NYT remains to be seen. For this article however, the question raised by this situation bears on the terms of the First Amendment, specifically the station of the Press. For many years the Mainstream Media has claimed an inviolate right to do as it pleases, up to and including violating laws protecting the nation’s secrets. This was the case during World War Two, when the Chicago Tribune published that the United States has broken the Japanese codes, a fact which could have disastrously changed the course of the war had the Japanese read and believed the reports. This was the case when Daniel Ellsworth published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. This was the case when CNN presented the false allegations of ‘Tailwind’. And of course, it has been revealed since the fall of Saddam that while he was in power, CNN toadied up to the dictator and covered up information confirming the evils of his regime, in order to maintain coveted access to key sources. The history of the MSM in terms of its responsibility is shoddy indeed. And now it appears that the New York Times, along with other Old Media enterprises, has put the lives of many intelligence and military personnel in danger. Further, in an age where it is commonly understood that the enemy not only can monitor media transmissions and publications, but is known to do so as a part of its operational reconnaissance, such hostile actions against our military are even more egregious.

Yet for all of that, I must agree that the Press, even the enemies of reason such as the New York Times and LA Times, must be afforded the liberties promised in the First Amendment. I note however, that with the advent of the Blogosphere that individuals have demonstrated equal, indeed superior, responsibility and veracity in handling the issues of common concern for the nation. It is the New Media, not the Old, which has best addressed the needs of the nation as an effective Press. This is not to deny the Old Media its place, but to demonstrate that like all of the Rights specified in the Bill of Rights, the rights of Man belong to individuals and when held in corporation, held by the collective rights of the individuals in that body. So, it is untrue to claim that the Firs Amendment grants a special right to the estate of the Press, separate and superior to any right of the individual, as it would be untrue to claim that only certain people should enjoy the right to practice their religion, or to freely assemble. The advent of blogging only demonstrates that individuals also enjoy the right of the press, as was indeed the common condition when the Constitution was first enacted.

But we should be careful in such matters, to accept responsibility along with rights. Some have said that the press should be able to print anything, that daylight is always the best disinfectant and warning that a government which can hide something in secrecy will certainly choose to hide its crimes. But we know that information is not only the moment, but changes the world, and there is some information which should not, indeed must not, be made known to our enemies. If it is prudent to lock our doors to keep out potential burglars, how much more vital is it to protect information which, if know to our foes, would lead to the deaths of countless innocents. So there is a need for secrecy, and a terrible price for neglecting its security.

I am of a mind therefore, to commit again to the standards of good journalism, which to my mind begin not with allegiance to a party or an employer, nor even to the truth, but to the people whose lives and welfare may be affected, for good or ill, by my actions and words. Like the policeman who must take care to be judicious with his weapon, like the judge who must rule with care for precedent and impact, like the governor who understands his words will be taken as the official intention of a state, I am committed to the enterprise of understanding, with the caveat that I will do nothing which damages the commonwealth of our nation, nor which compromises the safety of its defenders. I challenge all writers, whether Old Media or New, to say the same.

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