Prying by the press exposes spying on Americans

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 the National Security Agency, whose mission is to monitor the communications of foreigners outside our borders, has been focusing its futuristic spy technology on Americans.

The electronic eavesdropping was conducted under orders from the president and without benefit of warrants from the special court set up to make sure such domestic spying is necessary and lawful.

Immediate reaction to the report proved its importance.

Political leaders from both parties condemned the warrantless surveillance. The president went on radio and called a press conference to explain and defend the surveillance. Congress delayed a vote on renewal of the Patriot Act. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said he would conduct a hearing. The Foreign Intelligence Service Act court that was circumvented in the NSA surveillance called for an immediate briefing by the administration; one member of the highly secretive court resigned. And defense attorneys for some terrorism suspects announced that the disclosures could lead to legal challenges on behalf of their clients.

Not surprisingly, the Times also came under blistering attack – from the president and other political leaders, intelligence officials, pundits and bloggers, even competing news organizations. On one side, detractors claimed that the report had dangerously compromised national security; The New York Post headlined a Dec. 27 editorial with the suggestion that the Times was toying with treason. On the other side, critics complained that the story should have been published much sooner; a Los Angeles Times article suggested that the Times’ motive for publishing had as much to do with a pending book deal as with news judgment.

Administration officials had tried for more than a year to keep the newspaper from publishing the story. The president himself even summoned Times officials to the White House to persuade them not to go ahead with the report. The newspaper agreed to withhold some information but not the story.

At a press conference two days after publication, President Bush accused the Times of committing a “shameful act” and of “helping the enemy.”

It is a wonder that journalists dare bother. Yet they do. Here are just a few of the important issues brought to the public’s attention in just the past few weeks:

  • The CIA has been dropping off terrorism suspects at secret prisons in Eastern European nations where interrogation can be conducted under less-stringent restrictions than our own policies allow.

  • The Pentagon has been engaged in a massive initiative to collect, store and share data on thousands of American citizens involved in peaceful protests and demonstrations.

  • The FBI has been using national security letters to secretly access the personal records of thousands of U.S. citizens.

  • Federal, state and local law enforcement has been conducting surveillance and collecting data on a number of organizations and anti-war protesters.

    Keep in mind, this is information the White House and federal agencies actively work to hide from us and that our elected representatives and the courts have failed to reveal or uncover. Indeed, a formidable barrier of official secrecy has made it very difficult for the press to bring these issues to light.

    Americans will disagree over whether the press should report these highly sensitive matters. But all thinking citizens should agree that they need such news to participate fully and effectively in the public discourse that determines not only how their personal lives are affected but how their nation is defined.

    We have learned the hard way that government power, no matter what individual, agency or party holds it, is abuse waiting to happen. That is why so many checks and balances have been built into the system. Ideally, each branch holds the others accountable. But the public must hold all of them accountable.

    Obviously, in extraordinary times there will be assertions of extraordinary power for law enforcement and intelligence authorities. But when Congress and the courts are reluctant to exercise oversight, the people must step in. They are powerless to do that without the vital information that the press provides.

    More and more, Americans are being forced to navigate the tricky terrain between the needs of government officials trying to make the nation safer and the needs of individual citizens for personal privacy and the right to engage in even mundane First Amendment activities without worrying whether their most innocent of utterances or casual of contacts might look sinister in a government dossier or database.

    As government investigators peer and pry ever deeper into our private lives and terrorists fan our fears, essential elements of the democratic compact between a government and its citizenry become vulnerable. The rule of law fades. Security for speech and press freedom deteriorates.

    When it ventures into areas so sensitive, the press should expect criticism, even attacks. Criticism of the press is one thing. But when government officials aggressively attempt to filter the news for the public, when the Pentagon pays for the publication of “news” in Iraqi newspapers, or when misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are actively pursued as antidotes for news, then the role of the press in a free society is in real danger.

    Those who prefer to keep themselves and fellow Americans in the dark about these matters must confront at some point the possibility that ignorance is neither democratic nor American, neither security nor freedom.

    We should count ourselves fortunate that we have a press that labors to penetrate the fog of an undefined, unlimited and possibly unending war to bring us news that informs us not only of how the battle is going but how freedom is faring.

    Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: