‘Conservatives’ Condemn Freedom of the Press

The folks at the Weakly Substandard have joined the ranks of “conservatives” calling for a crackdown on journalists who “leak” national security “secrets.” In an essay entitled “Leaks and the Law,” Gabriel Schoenfeld tries to make “the case for prosecuting the New York Times“:

"Can journalists really be prosecuted for publishing national security secrets? In the wake of a series of New York Times stories revealing highly sensitive counterterrorism programs, that question is increasingly the talk of newsrooms across the country. …

"Although the editors of the Times act as if prosecution is not a possibility, not everyone concurs. One person who is still mulling the matter over is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Asked in late May about the prospect of prosecuting the Times and others who publish classified information, he by no means ruled it out. ‘There are some statutes on the books,’ he said, ‘which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility.'”

Schoenfeld goes on to mention a 1949 Senate report that noted how a book published in the early 1930s about U.S. successes in breaking Japanese codes had caused “irreparable harm” to our national security because it supposedly prompted the Japanese to come up with more secure codes. The report concluded that this was why we weren’t able to “decode the important Japanese military communications in the days immediately leading up to Pearl Harbor.”

Never mind that Pearl Harbor was brought on by U.S. government-led economic sanctions, an oil embargo, and a naval blockade. In Schoenfeld’s view, all that matters is the media’s alleged responsibility for “leaks of classified information.”

Schoenfeld sums up his criticism of a free press this way:

"At stake here for Attorney General Gonzales to contemplate is not just the right to defend ourselves from another Pearl Harbor. Can it really be the government’s position that, in the middle of a war in which we have been attacked on our own soil, the power to classify or declassify vital secrets should be taken away from elected officials acting in accord with laws set by Congress and bestowed on a private institution accountable to no one?"

“Accountable to no one?” That sounds a lot like the ruling elite in Washington. After all, they are the ones with the power to fine, imprison, and kill with impunity. Despite what “conservatives” like to think about their enemies in the mainstream press, the fact remains that the New York Times does not have that kind of power. But since when did facts matter?

We have already seen similar assaults on liberty in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln, for example, fought freedom of the press during his war against the South. He shut down newspapers that were critical of his illegal invasion and arrested editors who were sympathetic toward the Southern states and their right to secede.

Now it seems the Bush administration is prepared to pick up where Lincoln left off. And, as Schoenfeld’s article demonstrates, there is no shortage of “conservatives” willing to go along with the plan.

It isn’t difficult to spot the usual suspects. Those who support the prosecution of journalists for reporting the truth are the same ones who supported every other encroachment on our civil liberties under the current administration. They stood proudly by President Bush when he signed the anti-free speech Incumbent Politician Protection Act (AKA the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) into law. They cheered when the PATRIOT Act made every American citizen a potential terrorist suspect. They praised the REAL ID Act and its creation of a de facto national ID card.

As a reminder of the kind of nation we once had, here’s what Thomas Jefferson said about freedom of the press: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” How soon we forget.