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Friday, January 06, 2006

Hanging the Messenger

by Glenn Greenwald

Atrios asked this question yesterday:

So, what if it does come out that the administration was spying on journalists, political opponents, etc... How WILL the broders/russerts/matthews/hiatts/ roberts/humes of the world react?

I’m not sure exactly what those commentators would say (although I’m sure it would be appropriately balanced and would give due deference to the view that Bush had good arguments for such spying and did so only with the best of intentions for all of us), but I definitely know what Bush’s followers would say: It’s about time, and it doesn’t go far enough. Bush’s blogosphere followers have already begun justifying and excusing the Administration’s potential spying on journalists.

But clearly they believe that a lot more should be done to anti-Bush journalists than simply spying on their calls. Since the New York Times disclosed the undisputed fact that George Bush ordered his Administration to eavesdrop on American citizens with no judicial oversight and outside of FISA, the attacks on the media by the Administration and Bush’s followers have seriously escalated. Since this scandal arose, they have been relentlessly calling the Times and its sources "subversives" and "traitors," and have been openly claiming that they are guilty of treason.

When Bush followers use terms like "subversives" and "traitors," and when they accuse people of engaging in "treason," many assume that they are joking, that it’s a form of political hyperbole and it’s only meant symbolically. Pajamas Media member and Instapundit favorite Dean Esmay wants it know that the terms "traitors" and "treason" are used literally, and that these traitors must meet the fate which traitors deserve:

When I say "treason" I don't mean it in an insulting or hyperbolic way. I mean in a literal way: we need to find these 21st century Julius Rosenbergs, these modern day reincarnations of Alger Hiss, put them on trial before a jury of their peers, with defense counsel. When they are found guilty, we should then hang them by the neck until the are dead, dead, dead.

No sympathy. No mercy.Am I angry? You bet I am. But not in an explosive way. Just in the same seething way I was angry on 9/11.

These people have endangered American lives and American security. They need to be found, tried, and executed.

Similarly, on Powerline yesterday, Big Trunk shared some of his dirty fantasies about criminally prosecuting and imprisoning the reporters and editors of the Times who were responsible for having disclosed the fact that his Leader ordered the Government to eavesdrop on American citizens in violation of the law:

Assuming that the terms of the statute apply to the leaks involved in the NSA story, has the Times itself violated the statute and committed a crime? The answer is clearly affirmative. . . .

Is the New York Times a law unto itself? In gambling that constitutional immunity protects it from criminal liability for its misconduct, the New York Times appears to me to be bluffing. Those of us who are disinclined to remit the defense of the United States to the judgment of the New York Times must urge the Bush administration to call the Times's bluff.

Even discussions of this sort have the effect, by design, of intimidating the nation’s media into remaining quiet about illegal acts by the Administration. With an Administration which throws American citizens indefinitely into military prisons without so much as charges being brought and with access to lawyers being denied, or which contemplates military attacks on unfriendly media outlets, isn’t it just inevitable that all of this talk about treason and criminal prosecution of the Times and its sources is going to have some substantial chilling effect on reporting on the Administration's wrongdoing?

None of this is new. It’s all been tried before. The New York Times previously obtained classified documents revealing government misconduct with respect to the Vietnam War, and the Nixon Administration argued then, too, that the Times’ publication of that classified information was criminal and endangered national security. The U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. The United States (the Pentagon Papers Case) 403 U.S. 713 (1971), barred the Nixon Administration from preventing publication by the Times of this information.

In doing so, Justice Hugo Black wrote a concurring opinion which makes clear just how dangerous and perverse it is for the Administration and its followers to seek to silence the media from reporting, truthfully, on the Administration’s illegal eavesdropping. I’m quoting from it at length because it is so instructive and applicable to what is occurring today:

Our Government was launched in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, followed in 1791. Now, for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says, but rather means that the Government can halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country. . . .

Yet the Solicitor General argues and some members of the Court appear to agree that the general powers of the Government adopted in the original Constitution should be interpreted to limit and restrict the specific and emphatic guarantees of the Bill of Rights adopted later. I can imagine no greater perversion of history. . . .

In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

The subtle and not-so-subtle threats against journalists for committing "treason" are not confined to the rabid Bush followers in the blogosphere. Bush’s closest political allies routinely make similar accusations, and Bush himself, in his very first Press Conference after disclosure of his eavesdropping, accused those responsible for the disclosure of “helping the enemy,” i.e., committing treason:

There is a process that goes on inside the Justice Department about leaks, and I presume that process is moving forward. My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy. . . .

With a Congress that is controlled by Republicans and hopelessly passive, and with a judiciary increasingly packed with highly deferential Bush appointees, the two remaining sources which can serve as meaningful checks on Executive power are governmental whistle-blowers and journalists, which is exactly why the most vicious and intimidating attacks are now being directed towards them.