They don’t call me Mr. Freedom of the Press

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on November 30, 2010

I would normally respond to this in the comments, but I think this is a probably a good opportunity to lay out where I stand on freedom of the press vs. national security.

First, John’s comment:

Thank you Mr. Freedom of the Press. Can we also shut down the NYT website? Not many people are using that one either.

Honestly, did any of these leaks tell us anything we didn’t already know, or at least suspect? Oh, look the US spies on other countries? Really? The only thing I have gotten out of the leaks is that the State Department isn’t quite as naive as they are often made out to be.

Regarding the NYT’s website: Don’t tempt me. Winking smile

No, the latest links probably don’t tell us much that an informed foreign policy observer probably couldn’t deduce or surmise from anonymous sources in press accounts. On that count, the earlier leaked documents regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were far more damaging to U.S. national security and the lives of people who’ve helped us in those countries.

On that issue, I’m annoyed that the Obama administration is just now getting around to going after Julian Assange. It makes it appear that the Obama administration is more concerned about how they look (and they don’t look particularly good in a lot of these cables) than they are about the safety of those who’ve helped us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Am I a supporter of the freedom of the press? Certainly. Do I oppose prior restraint? Yes. Do the American people have the right to know every single thing their government does? No.

But freedom of the press doesn’t mean the press is above the law.

The American people didn’t elect New York Times editor Bill Keller or any of his reporters to use their judgment when it comes to what should be kept secret and what should be splashed across newspaper pages and the Web. And the American people certainly didn’t give the go-ahead for some punk PFC in Iraq to disseminate these documents around the world.

Journalists publishing classified documents is much the same as ordinary citizens practicing civil disobedience. If you’re picketing an abortion clinic or organizing a sit-in against whatever’s in vogue on the college campus that particular day, you should expect to get arrested and go before a judge. If you can generate enough public outrage at your treatment or the law you’re accused of breaking (and don’t think the press wouldn’t be ginning up outrage by the metric ton) then the law will be changed or your sentence will be commuted or you’ll be pardoned or whatever.

If you’re going to do the crime, be prepared to do the time.

It would’ve been politically interesting (how’s that for an artful obfuscation?), but I would’ve like to have seen the Bush administration go after Keller for revealing the terrorist financial tracking program – which eventually led to us losing that tool after other countries succumbed to pressure because they were helping the evil Bush administration.

A job at a newspaper or TV station isn’t a get out of jail free card.

Let’s say that instead of diplomatic cables or reports from the front lines of Iraq or Afghanistan that some PFC managed to get detailed schematics on the electronics and sonar in our attack submarines and some newspaper, website or cable news network thought it would be a good idea to just put those up on the Internet for anyone to see.

Is there any doubt that they could – and should – be prosecuted under our espionage laws?

I don’t trust journalists to know or decide which document marked “top secret” is OK to publish because it’ll only be a little politically embarrassing and which document they shouldn’t because it could get people killed. I’ve known enough journalists in my life to know that they don’t have the knowledge or capacity to make that decision.

4 comments on “They don’t call me Mr. Freedom of the Press”

  1. So, basically, you're trusting the US government to look out for you? Good plan.

    By the way, I find it some what ironic that the demand is put forth that a foreign national be prosecuted in the US for espionage, where the major outcome of the espionage was an uncovering of US espionage programs in foreign countries.

    Perhaps bloggers in every country that the State Department currently has diplomats in are currently making the same demands of those diplomats as well. Maybe also demanding that a neutral third-party sovereign country be reduced to the stone age if they don't violate their own laws and concede to US demands for censorship.

    The cat was out of the bag when the PFC hit send, every thing since then whining, any actions the US takes will look vindictive and impotent and it just compounds how bad the leaks already make us look.

  2. Well, who else you gonna trust? The PFC? Assange? The NYT? We've got to be able to keep some secrets. If there's malfeasance or other dirty dealing, then you've got to believe that there are some honest people in the government that will go through the proper channels and alert other responsible people who will take care of it.

    I disagree that any actions the U.S. takes makes us appear impotent and vindictive. Try applying that logic to any other crime. Doing nothing makes us appear weak and impotent. Prosecuting the the PFC and that punk Assange serve as a warning to others who might consider behaving similarly.

  3. Well as out of the X-Files: Trust no one. That said, the PFC broke the law and should be placed under the jail. We can whine about Assange all day long, but its a fairly large hurdle that he broke the law. (Unless the law is against embarrassing the US.) But how far are you planning on going with this, what he did is only tangentially illegal in the US, let alone the county where he lives. Are we going to prosecute everyone who posts information to a web site that the US finds objectionable? He is a slime ball who hates the US, but thats not a crime.

  4. Pretend for a second that we're not talking about secret diplomatic cables and instead cash. Would there be any doubt then that Assange had broken any laws? What about, if, instead of publishing the cables for all the world to see, Assange had given them directly to the Chinese -- that would certainly be illegal. Then why is simply making them public not?

    You don't have to be a U.S. citizen to break U.S. laws (see Noriega, Manuel), I don't think Assange is in a separate class of lawbreaker simply because he posted them on the Web as opposed to giving them directly to the Chinese or Russians or whoever else.


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