Issue 100, Winter 2005/2006

by Joan E. Bertin, Esq.

“Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people”

—  Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, 1971

As this issue’s cover story reminds us, the press is the public’s main source of information about how the government conducts business. For example, we learned that the National Security Agency has been secretly eavesdropping on Americans without search warrants from an article in The New York Times,1 and from The Washington Post that the CIA has engaged in secret “rendition” of prisoners in Europe,2 in apparent violation of the laws of some of those countries.

Directly after these articles appeared, the Justice Department launched investigations into both papers’ sources, alleging a possible violation of law in the disclosure of classified information. Such a tactic targets the leaks as cause for concern, obscuring the more critical issue of the government’s own programs and policies. And it sends a clear message that the press acts at its peril when it discloses facts the government prefers to keep quiet.

Buried in the Times story was the admission that, at the administration’s request, the paper suppressed the story altogether for over a year, and was still withholding some information. The article did not indicate how often, or under what circumstances, Times executives conferred with White House officials.

These events form part of a larger pattern of control over access to important information. The NSA program was itself a closely guarded secret, initiated pursuant to a covert executive order in 2002.

At the same time, various officials and agencies have bought and paid for ersatz “news” to promote domestic and foreign policies; the administration has increased the pace of classification of documents, withheld the release of unclassified documents, and created a new amorphous category of “sensitive but unclassified” to shield its actions from scrutiny. Most recently, the White House has refused to provide information to Congressional investigators about its response to Hurricane Katrina.

Executive privilege and national security are predictably trotted out to rationalize secrecy, deception, and propaganda. Of course, these same excuses were offered in the last century to justify surveillance of communists, pacifists, civil rights activists, and other “dissidents,” viz the Palmer Raids and “Red Scare,” the HUAC hearings, and the FBI’s infiltration of civil rights and anti-war groups in the 1960s and ’70s.

Harry Truman observed, “once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures….” The commitment was clear when the White House warned in 2001 that we should “watch what we say”; the “increasingly repressive measures” have arrived on schedule. It’s past time for the loyal opposition to rouse itself, while there’s still a chance it will be heard.


1 — James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in US after 9/11, Officials Say” in The New York Times, 12/15/2005.
2 — Dana Priest, “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons” in The Washington Post, 11/02/2005.

If you have questions about this story, please consult our collection of free speech materials relating to the Iraq war in War & Speech, or email [email protected].