May 22, 2006

Freedom to oppress

I don't know why I'm surprised by anything the government says nowadays:

The government has the legal authority to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday.

"There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility," Mr. Gonzales said on the ABC News program "This Week."

I love that "if you read it carefully, it seems to indicate maaaaybe that there's no such thing as freedom of the press." And if you squint at the Constitution, it obviously says "the president gets to do whatever he wants, nyaah nyaah nyaah."

Mr. Gonzales said that the administration promoted and respected the right of the press that is protected under the First Amendment.

"But it can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity," he said. "And so those two principles have to be accommodated."

Yes -- a Constitutional right can't possibly trump a right that some Americans would like to have. And Alberto Gonzales is an American! And he wants the government to have the right to do illegal things, declare them classified, and send journalists to jail for reporting on them! That's his right as an American, and we have to respect that.

(Read the article without NY Times registration here.)

Posted by Francis at 10:29 AM

So... if someone is a journalist, they can publish anything, even those things which other citizens would prosecuted for disclosing? Like, it's okay for a journalist to publish (say) the names of covert agents? Or ex-agents?

Interestingly, the New York Times took a very different position with regard to the Valerie Plame Wilson case. They demanded that anyone connected with the disclosue of Ms. Plame's former status be prosecuted.

So which is it?

Posted by: Michael Edelman at May 23, 2006 11:28 AM

It's a good question. I don't think it was right for Valerie Plame's name to be revealed, but I don't think reporters should be on the hook for it when the administration was manipulating the media for its own purposes. It was poor judgment to publish the information, but who is more at fault -- the person who revealed the information or the person it was told to?

Gonzales's statement this time around is more likely to refer to news reports about the NSA surveillance program, a program which is of dubious legality. Surely the press has a responsibility to investigate governmental wrongdoing, whether or not the government is claiming that the illegal activities are classified.

Posted by: Francis at May 23, 2006 12:03 PM

I don't think the NYT was saying, ever, that the newspaper should be prosecuted for printing the name. They were saying (and not with one voice) that the person who leaked the information, in violation of federal law, should be prosecuted.

If a journalist has the names of covert agents, the government has no prior restraint to prevent a newspaper from publishing them, nor should the newspaper be prosecuted, nor should the journalist be prosecuted, unless that journalist broke the law in getting those names. Now, if I ran a newspaper, I wouldn't print the names of legal but covert agents overseas, but that's my call. I would print information about illegal government activities, including warrantless wiretapping.

We went through all this with the Pentagon Papers. The law says that federal employees aren't supposed to leak classified information, and if they do, well then fine, prosecute them. The law does not say that the press has to keep its mouth shut about what it knows. More important, the Executive Branch does not get to decide what the press can print, what laws apply to it, what judicial restraints it can ignore, and what "principles have to be accomodated", all by itself.


Posted by: Vardibidian at May 24, 2006 10:10 AM
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