Is the press guilty of treason?

Thursday, August 8, 2002

As usual, the nation's capital is leaking like a sieve. And administration officials are scrambling to track down and shut up government employees providing sensitive information to the enemy — that is to say, the press.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered an investigation into “criminal” leaks of information to newspapers about U.S. plans for a possible war against Iraq. The FBI has interrogated 39 members of Congress and their staffs, trying to find the source of a leak to the press about messages intercepted by the National Security Agency.

While the immediate targets are the leakers within government, it is the press that many government officials regard as the real problem. A defense official was quoted recently as saying: “We've got to do whatever it takes — if it takes sending SWAT teams into journalists' homes — to stop these leaks.”

That, perhaps, was hyperbole in an unguarded moment. Not so an article by a federal intelligence analyst in a recent issue of The Washington Post. “I accuse the media in the United States of treason,” Dennis Pluchinsky wrote as the first sentence in the article.

This State Department official, criticizing news media coverage of possible targets of terrorists, went on to call for laws and policies restricting coverage of the war on terrorism.

“If there were an 'Osama bin Laden' award given out by al Qaeda,” Pluchinsky wrote, “I believe that it would be awarded to the U.S. news media for their investigative reporting. This type of reporting — carrying specifics about U.S. vulnerabilities — must be stopped or censored.”

Mr. Pluchinsky was voicing his own opinion, but it cannot be dismissed as isolated. In fact, there are many — inside and outside government — who regard the robust exercise of First Amendment rights by either the press or the people as a dangerous problem in the fight against terrorism.

Citing those concerns, Mr. Pluchinsky proposed that journalists filter any reporting on possible security problems through a government agency. And he called for the passage of laws “temporarily restricting the media from publishing any security information that can be used by our enemies.”

Such proposals would make prior restraint the norm, self-censorship the ideal and democratic discourse an exercise in futility. They invoke two dangerous assumptions: 1) that the more accommodating the press, the more accountable the government, and 2) that the less Americans know, the safer they are.

Further, they ignore a disturbing array of restrictions on the flow of information rushed into effect in the aftermath of Sept. 11. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called up television and newspaper executives to warn them about their coverage of Osama bin Laden. The State Department tried to suppress a Voice of America interview with the head of the Taliban. The Defense Department placed unprecedented restrictions on journalists attempting to cover the war in Afghanistan. The Justice Department closed immigration hearings and refused to release the names of detainees. Federal agencies removed information from their Web sites.

There were more direct restrictions on the press. In the ban on air traffic after Sept. 11, news media aircraft were kept grounded long after other private aircraft returned to the air. Photography was banned at the World Trade Center site. The Pentagon pre-empted news media use of satellite photos of the South Asia region. In addition, strict restrictions were placed on the ability of the press to cover the military operations in Afghanistan. At home, numerous restrictions on access to government information were put in place.

Even a national crisis is not sufficient justification for government officials to move so aggressively to constrict the flow of so much information to its citizens. Americans should keep in mind the news void concerning airport security flaws and the massive information-sharing failures — in federal agencies, congressional committees and the press — that left us lethally exposed to the horrors of 9/11.

Charging the press with irresponsibility or worse in reporting on our current vulnerabilities gives too much credence to the notion that terrorists would know nothing if it weren't for the news media. It breezes past the fact that much of the reporting on the war on terrorism relies heavily on leaks from federal agencies and Congress, as well as information provided by whistleblowers. And it fails to acknowledge that the press frequently has held or changed stories to prevent harm to national security or that it has engaged in a months-long dialogue with the intelligence community to address the problems that can arise from unauthorized leaks.

There is no question that the news media should exercise care. But Americans must recognize that being unaware of danger is not the same as being safe from danger. A critical component of our national security is knowing about our vulnerabilities and what our leaders are doing about them. Without the public pressure that unflinching journalism creates, vulnerabilities will remain for terrorists to exploit.

Then there is the problem of collateral damage to the First Amendment rights of others in proposing to restrict the press. Mr. Pluchinsky concedes as much by suggesting that there are other open sources that must be regarded as threats, such as courtroom proceedings, the academic community, think tanks, the Internet, even the telephone book.

We've been led down this road of blind trust before. In other times of national crisis, we have surrendered rights and tolerated secrecy and censorship. We have punished political leaders, scholars, journalists and ordinary citizens for what they said and rounded up and interned thousands for who they were.

When we look back at those betrayals of our fundamental principles, we are embarrassed and not just a little unnerved. Even so, there are many among us — including some government officials — who still believe that we have no choice but to repeat those mistakes.

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