Fighting Words

Full Disclosure

Bring on the press revelations.

Bill Keller

In encounters with various conservatives this past week, I have come to realize that they are entirely serious about regarding the “MSM,” in particular the New York Times under the editorship of Bill Keller, as not just objectively treasonable but subjectively so—in other words, as being consciously hostile to the Bush administration’s war aims. This issue has also given the right-wing rank and file something to really gnaw upon, and I expect it will be with us all the way up to, and including, the fall elections. What a pity, therefore, that the conflict is so wrongly counterposed and can lead only to demagoguery on one side and hypocrisy on the other.

A letter from the various deans of American journalism schools, published in the “Outlook” section of Sunday’s Washington Post, neatly illustrates some of the false antitheses. Making a strong case for the right of disclosure and the pitfalls of prior restraint, the signatories nonetheless feel obliged to stipulate an instance where “national security” should have trumped the initial disclosure itself. Can you guess the example they used? It was obviously wrong, they say, for Robert Novak to have revealed the identity of Valerie Plame!

This is both ridiculous and suicidal. It appears to admit that there isa case for self-muzzling by the media but only in a case where the nation’s security was not endangered. A serious controversy persists as to whether Joseph Wilson himself endangered national security by repeatedly misstating the facts about the Iraq-Niger connection. In order for that controversy to be fully ventilated, the extent of his connection to the CIA must be fully known. Whether Novak meant to blow Plame’s cover or not (and as it happens it seems that he did not), he would have been well within his journalistic rights to do so. Our enemies would have acquired no advantage from the information, and the readers of the press would have been better informed on a major question. The CIA’s attempt to criminalize the information was itself part of an interdepartmental war within the administration, which it is the right of every citizen to know about.

And on that point, a New York Times journalist really did go to jail. Some of the paper’s columnists now throw out a big chest about the hatred and threats that their editor is enduring, but it is very unlikely indeed that Keller will be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. Judy Miller went to the joint on the elementary matter of protecting a source and was “let go” by the Times shortly after her release. And if you want to talk about hate mail, you should see the deranged way in which liberals and anti-warriors have been accusing her of invading Iraq all on her own. In other words, it’s too late for Frank Rich to pretend that this is Spiro Agnew versus the Pentagon Papers. His newspaper has begun the argument at least one rung down from the brave old days, because it has already endorsed a special-prosecutor official-secrecy witch hunt on a trivial question. This makes it harder to look like Elijah Lovejoy.

I am a listed plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government, in the matter of the unlawful wiretapping of U.S. telephones, a disclosure that we owe initially to the New York Times. And I would illustrate the difference between one form of disclosure and another by divorcing it for a moment from the differences over the war. Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has in my opinion emerged as the most serious person in this argument. For years now, he has been pressing the CIA and the White House, without much success, to allow more declassification of documents about the Iraq war, in particular the vast warehouse of Baathist documentation now being held in Qatar. None of this closely held material could possibly compromise our security, and some of it has already undermined the lazy consensus that Saddam, WMD, and al-Qaida are never to be mentioned in the same breath. It is also likely to show that our supposed intelligence services were appallingly ignorant about what was happening in Baghdad. This is a bad reason for secrecy. Would it not be nice if the New York Times joined the campaign to have this material declassified and even sent some of its sleuths to Qatar to work on the subject?

But Rep. Hoekstra has also written to the president, announcing his alarm, about the way in which the administration seems to think it is a law unto itself when it comes to notifying Congress of some rather alarming and improvised rule changes—or “a violation of the law,” as he phrases it in his letter (recently obtained by the New York Times). I somehow doubt that the Gonzales Justice Department will accuse the newspaper of treason for publicizing a letter from an elected hawkish member of the GOP. If the House intelligence committee regards itself as being kept in the dark, what is the press to do but make the assumption that there is too little public information available rather than too much?

There is no neat fit between press freedom and any “right” view of the war. In Abraham Lincoln’s time, newspapers printed disclosures that they hoped would aid the Confederacy. In World War II, the Roosevelt-hating ChicagoTribune gave away the crucial fact that the United States had managed to decode the cable traffic of imperial Japan. Yet the First Amendment survived. The Bush people will make a huge mistake if they continue with their campaign against the news media. But the New York Times in particular should admit that, by endorsing the costly and futile intrusions of Patrick Fitzgerald, it helped to fashion a whip for its own back.