Chances are, the New York Times won’t be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for reporting on a secret financial-monitoring program used to trace terrorists. This is one of those Constitutionally opaque areas where reasonable people can agree that a free press is indispensable to a meaningful democracy, that prior restraint is philosophically anathema, that the Fourth Amendment is seriously sacred stuff, that we all think we know what the Founding Fathers would say and that the people’s right to know is sacrosanct — but not quite absolute. You don’t, say, aid or abet the enemy. You don’t give away troop movements. That sort of thing.
The Nixon Administration didn’t want the Pentagon Papers to go public, because it was politically embarrassing and demoralizing. How the U.S. dominoed itself into Vietnam in the first place would further fuel the anti-war furor. But that was not a compelling enough reason to proscribe publication by the New York Times. I still have my copy.
And ironically there was the Times’ acquiescence to President John F. Kennedy’s entreaty to not blow the cover of CIA-funded rebels prepping to invade Cuba. To his dying day, Kennedy regretted being so persuasive. The unco-opted Bay of Pigs plans became, of course, a tragic fiasco and precursor to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
To publish or not to publish is ultimately a soul-searching, ethically-wrenching “hard call,” as acknowledged by Times’ executive editor Bill Keller. It better be – even for the ostensibly apolitical and the would-be omniscient. An unelected media that buys ink by the barrel is a requisite check on government power – but it’s not a leak-reliant trump card in time of national peril.
And context means everything.
Consider the paranoid, adversarial Nixon Administration. Or the newly-elected, young, Eastern establishment, New Frontier Kennedy Administration. Or Fortress Bush – hardly a citadel of veracity from countdown to Iraq to Katrina aftermath to Valerie Plame’s CIA outing.
And speaking of context. The United States is a country at war. Not a police action or a conflict or a Cold War proxy fight. Recall that Ho Chi Minh never threatened to attack America.
This is a civilizational war. The kind you must win. Ask Israel. The kind you err on the side of protecting lives – and ways of life — for.
Bill Keller might not get that. Neither might Jon Stewart. But they’re being protected too.