The American Bear



“Washington is currently going a little nuts on the subject of leaks. The Obama administration, which has, without really setting out to do so, already surpassed all previous administrations in its prosecution of leakers, has begun new investigations into disclosures by The Times, Newsweek, The Associated Press and others. Congress has mandated surveillance systems that make it easier to identify leakers and to prevent unauthorized downloads of classified material.

But that has not quieted the hysteria. Republicans are accusing the F.B.I. of insufficient zeal and demanding a special prosecutor. Democrats, typically worried about being perceived as soft on national security, have tried to out-deplore the Republicans. Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill the other day that, among other things, would forbid background briefings on intelligence matters by anyone except an agency’s director, deputy director or public-affairs spin doctors - thus cutting out the officers with firsthand knowledge and silencing those who question the party line. It should be dubbed the Keep Americans in the Dark Act. Feinstein already seems to be backpedaling a bit, after discovering that top intelligence officials think elements of her bill are ridiculous…

…Over the decades, rival interests — the government’s legitimate responsibility to keep some things secret, the press’s constitutional freedom to ferret out information and report it — have coexisted through informal understandings. The government worked to protect secrets at the source but generally accepted that it had little recourse once they had escaped. Violators were reprimanded, but hardly ever charged under the Espionage Act. Reporters and editors were sometimes persuaded to withhold information if they were convinced it could put lives at risk.

Alexander Bickel, who was the chief counsel for The Times in the Pentagon Papers case, wrote that this accommodation ‘works well only when there is forbearance and continence on both sides. It threatens to break down when the adversaries turn into enemies, when they break diplomatic relations with each other, gird for and wage war. Such conditions threaten graver breakdowns yet, eroding the popular trust and confidence in both government and the press on which effective exercise of the function of both depends.’

Bickel’s argument, in a seminal book of legal philosophy called ‘The Morality of Consent,’ assumes a respectful - if adversarial - relationship between, on one side, an establishment press and, on the other, a government that accepts the value of compromise in the conduct of public affairs. It’s arguable whether we have either of those today.”

— Bill Keller, New York Times. The Leak Police.

A must read from this weekend.

In it, Keller walks through some US journalism history. In particular, Max Frankel’s 1971 deposition defending the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. At that time, Keller writes, “Frankel acknowledged the self-serving nature of [leaks] - on both sides - but concluded that this ‘cooperative, competitive, antagonistic and arcane relationship,’ as he called it, was essential to the working of democracy.”

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely. It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful…[Far] more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive. Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation. Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism | Samir Chopra

[Keller] concludes his column with this: ‘The most palpable legacy of the WikiLeaks campaign for transparency is that the U.S. government is more secretive than ever.’ Wrong. The real legacy is that hundreds of millions of citizens in dozens of countries, including our own, know a good deal more about bad (and in some cases good) deeds carried out by their own governments, including torture, corruption, and killing of civilians in war. Greg Mitchell | Bill Keller With New Blast at Julian Assange