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Sunday, December 05, 2010

"Precisely The Reason The First Amendment Was Invented"

by digby

Howie has a great post up about Wikileaks today and I urge you to read the whole thing. But I can't resist this excerpt:

Rick Perlstein reports extensively on this sad chapter of American history in his brilliant book Nixonland and that's where all the blockquotes below are coming from. The NYTimes began publishing excerpts from the 43 volumes Ellsberg gave them on June 13, 1971-- Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement. The papers showed without doubt that Vietnam was a wrongful war and, in Ellsberg's own words, "demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates."

Kissinger found it easy to manipulate the drug-addicted, alcoholic Nixon and he stoked a rage in the always paranoid president to go on a jihad against everyone and everything involved with the leak, even though Nixon's first assessment was that it had nothing to do with him-- it didn't-- and why should he even care. It went from that to injunctions and accusations of treason. Nixon's attempts to force the Times and over a dozen other papers to stop publishing went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 that the papers could be published freely.
Justice Brennan's decision argued that press reports that embarrass the government were precisely the reason the First Amendment was invented. Just Black concurred. "Every moment's continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment... [F]or 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."

Just in case the court ruled the other way, the previous evening Mike Gravel, the forty-one-year-old senator from Alaska, had called an extraordinary two-man night "hearing" of his Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds. He began reading aloud from a four-thousand-page typescript-- the historical narrative portion of the Pentagon Papers, provided to him by an anonymous source.

He started at 9:45 p.m. "The story is a terrible one," Gravel warned. "It is replete with duplicity, connivance against the public. People, human beings, are being killed as I speak to you. Arms are being severed; metal is crashing through human bodies." Then he began to weep.

He read for three hours and word spread throughout Capitol Hill and the hearing room was soon packed. He was able to introduce the entire document into the Congressional Record, thwarting Nixon and Kissinger. But they were on the warpath and Nixon seems to have snapped completely and never recovered. Kissinger had figured out that Ellsberg was the leaker within a couple of days and destroying him became a White House crusade. Remind anyone of Peter King, the demented Republican congressloon from Long Island?
He goes on to discuss the media at some length and the difference between then and now. I think America itself is different. We just aren't surprised by this anymore and we have come to accept the government lying to the people as the price of being "free."

Ellsberg comments on Wikileaks here.

Update: In yet another chapter in the saga of ongoing media failure, here's Howard Kurtz and some journalists being mealy-mouthed and useless on the subject as Jeff Jarvis stood alone in pointing out that attacks against Wikileaks and threats to shut down the internet were attacks on publishing.

For an inspiring word from a real journalist read this essay from David Samuels in The Atlantic. This is the conclusion, but everything that comes before is important and correct:

Wikileaks is a powerful new way for reporters and human rights advocates to leverage global information technology systems to break the heavy veil of government and corporate secrecy that is slowly suffocating the American press. The likely arrest of Assange in Britain on dubious Swedish sex crimes charges has nothing to do with the importance of the system he has built, and which the US government seems intent on destroying with tactics more appropriate to the Communist Party of China -- pressuring Amazon to throw the site off their servers, and, one imagines by launching the powerful DDOS attacks that threatened to stop visitors from reading the pilfered cables.

In a memorandum entitled "Transparency and Open Government" addressed to the heads of Federal departments and agencies and posted on WhiteHouse.gov, President Obama instructed that "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing." The Administration would be wise to heed his words -- and to remember how badly the vindictive prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg ended for the Nixon Administration. And American reporters, Pulitzer Prizes and all, should be ashamed for joining in the outraged chorus that defends a burgeoning secret world whose existence is a threat to democracy.