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Hullabaloo


Monday, November 11, 2013

 
"I would have made a different decision had I known that Jim and Eric were tugging on a thread that led to a whole tapestry"

by digby

I've been meaning to comment on this fascinating piece by the New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan for a few days. It's about the NY Times decision not to publish James Risen and Eric Lichtblau's piece about a secret Bush administration program to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants back in 2004.
The 13-month delay in publishing the article, a period that spanned a presidential election, continues to bother these readers. Why did The Times, at the urgent request of the administration, wait so long? What does that say about the relationship between the government and the press? Would the same thing happen today? I hear about it often in email and online comments. It crops up in newspaper columns, on Twitter, in journalism reviews.

Now, in light of the huge leak of classified information on government surveillance from Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, the episode has a renewed currency.

When the former ombudsman asked about this episode he was ignored. Sullivan is more persistent and gets answers. Here's just a little piece of what she found, which I thought was terribly interesting:

What if he knew then everything he knows now, in light of the Snowden revelations? “I would have made a different decision had I known that Jim and Eric were tugging on a thread that led to a whole tapestry,” Mr. Taubman said.

Given the law of unintended consequences, and a fair helping of irony, the publication of the warrantless eavesdropping story resonates now in quite another way: The furor it caused prompted the Bush administration to push hard for changes in the laws governing surveillance.

“Our story set in motion the process of making all this stuff legal,” Mr. Lichtblau said. “Now it’s all encoded in law. Bush got everything he wanted on his way out of office.”

There may be public outrage over the latest wave of surveillance revelations, but the government has a helpful defense: Hey, it’s legal.
I think about that often --- this process we seem to have developed in which the government does something in secret (or secret from the public anyway) that is clearly illegal and when revealed, the response is simply to legalize it. When these practices continue the story is old and irrelevant because, "hey, it's legal."

Presumably, these sorts of contentious issue would wend their way through the courts to see if they are in keeping with constitutional principles, but they've found novel ways of roadblocking that process as well, through the use of classification and state secrets and simple secrecy which makes it impossible to even know if you've been victimized and have standing to challenge the law. It's all very underhanded. But you can't honestly say it's undemocratic since these practices are so often legalized (as the warrantless wiretapping program was legalized back in 2008 --- and voted for by then Senator Obama.)

It's a neat trick of slowly changing the norms one revelation at a time.

The whole article is well worth reading if only for the recognition from some of the players that the paper, like the government, lost its bearings after 9/11 and basically failed in its duty. It's not something you see every day.

Also, along these same lines, read this wonderful piece from Robert Kuttner thanking Edward Snowden for doing what he did. Kuttner is largely alone among his liberal peers in seeing Snowden as a whistleblower and not a criminal (which is still shocking to me) and it's very admirable of him to write in such plain terms about how badly Snowden has been treated and how important his work has been. You'd think that editors of the New York Times now wishing they'd been more bold in "pulling on the string" they discovered back in 2004 would persuade most liberal journalists and analysts to to bold enough to admit that Snowden didn't commit espionage and shouldn't have to face living in an inhumane super max prison for the rest of his life for simply telling the people what they always had a right to know. That's supposed to be the basic function of journalism. But I don't see a lot of evidence they've changed their minds.

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