Should the Media Exercise Restraint?

The government’s bullying of a free press ultimately does more damage than the leaking of a well-known spy program.


Article created by The Independent Institute.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives, on a party line vote, passed an innocuous-sounding resolution that “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations in protecting the lives of Americans and the capability of the government to identify, disrupt, and capture terrorists by not disclosing classified intelligence programs such as the Terrorist Financing Tracking Program.” The program in question involves government monitoring of international electronic banking transfers for suspected terrorist activity. In reality, the resolution, passed just before the celebration of U.S. independence from autocratic oppression, was aimed at intimidating a free press-a major component of American freedom.

As is usually the case with many classified U.S. government programs created to monitor the activities of adversaries, the news that the U.S. government was snooping into international electronic banking transactions was less of a shock to the enemy being monitored than to the American people. Because terrorists have been aware of such surveillance by governments, they long ago started using the more informal Middle Eastern system of financial transactions (called hawala) involving couriers and money transfer facilitators. But even the public should have been aware of such government activities, given the Bush administration’s constant bragging about tracking the financial flows to terrorist groups.

In addition, any terrorists’ transactions remaining in regular financial channels being monitored are contained in the vast volume of electronic transfers in the international banking system. Trying to track them down is like trying to find a particular grain of sand on a beach.

Despite the fact that media disclosure of the secret monitoring had very little deleterious effect on the U.S. war on terror, it is an off-year election year-in which turn out of the party faithful is usually a critical factor-and the fearful Republicans wasted no time in trying to energize their political base by bashing the “liberal media.” Passage of the House resolution came on the heels of President Bush and Vice President Cheney scolding the press and calls for prosecution of those newspapers involved and revocation of their White House press credentials. During the congressional debate, the Republicans, as usual, tried to paint the argument in terms of a left-wing media eagerly helping the terrorists. Republican representative Spencer Bacchus of Alabama blustered, “If you are Al Qaeda, the appropriate response to this publication is, ‘Thank you.'”

Of course, leaking the snooping program causes much less damage to the nation than does the harm of the government bullying a free press. The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, is the bedrock of our free society. Even official rhetoric, such as the House resolution, can subtly chill reporters and editors from finding and publishing information that is vital for the public to know. The threat of prosecuting them is even more pernicious to the free flow of information needed for maintaining a healthy republic.

If the government employees who leaked the classified information can be identified, they should be prosecuted. They signed an oath agreeing not to disclose government secrets. But members of the press made no such pledge. If the government is incompetent in keeping secrets, the media, in a free society, should not be prosecuted for publishing them. It is much less dangerous to an open society to try to prevent government employees from leaking than it is to prevent the press from publishing the leaks.

On Independence Day in a competitive election year, politicians should remember that words do have consequences for the freedoms that were fought for at the nation’s founding. Instead of trying to intimidate the media into prior restraint, perhaps the pols should restrain their own rhetoric.

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