Security vs. freedom

Government, press grapple with finding the right balance

June 24, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG AND STEPHEN KIEHL | DAN THANH DANG AND STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTERS

In matters of national security, the government and the press have long engaged in a tense tug of war, between the administration's desire to keep sensitive information secret and the media's belief in the public's right to know.

That strain has never been more evident than now as the country continues to fight terrorism, experts say, even as newspapers are uncovering secret intelligence programs that the government has launched since the 9/11 attacks.

This week, officials unsuccessfully pressed editors at The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, among others, not to print articles about the U.S. Treasury Department's secret effort to track terrorist financing through bank data.

"It is different in that in this [post-9/11] environment, the government has acquired more power," says Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "It now seems as if the government makes up its mind and simply assumes the media is going to follow suit."

Kalb says he is most dismayed by attempts by the Bush administration to investigate and prosecute editors and reporters who publish information the government doesn't want out.

Recently, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales suggested reporters could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act after newspapers printed information the administration had asked them to withhold: In November, The Washington Post met with President Bush before revealing that the CIA was operating secret prisons in Europe to question terror suspects, and in December, Bush met with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about the impending revelation of a secret wiretapping program.

Other media have similarly published stories about secret government programs.

Keller said yesterday that the Times "listened closely to the administration's" most recent request, to withhold the banking article, but chose to run it as "a matter of public interest."

Administration officials countered yesterday that the disclosure of the program has ended its usefulness.

"I am very disappointed in the revelation of this program," Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said. "This program continued to be valuable up until right now."

To Bob Zelnick, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Boston University journalism professor, the news media have acted irresponsibly.

"I could see where this would be useful for a terrorist organization," said Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent. "They might alter their way of communicating or transferring funds."

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor of the conservative Commentary magazine and advocate for prosecution of the Times for disclosing state secrets, agreed.

"This is the second time in recent months that the Times has essentially blown a major U.S. counterterrorism initiative by bringing it to the attention of al-Qaida and other would-be terrorists," he said. "I think it's irresponsible in a moment when the United States does face continuing danger of terrorist attacks."

Meanwhile, much of the public seems to support the government in the controversy. An ABC/Washington Post survey last month found that close to two-thirds of people polled were unconcerned that the NSA was secretly monitoring the phone calls of tens of millions of Americans.

Many don't realize how much thought goes into a media outlet's decision to publish, said Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

"To a far greater degree than the general viewing, reading or listening public appreciates, those who make these decisions for the media do take these requests very seriously," said O'Neil, an authority on the First Amendment. "They are certainly aware of the potential harm that could be done."

What's important to remember, said Ronald Collins, is that the war against terrorism is unlike past wars. "The whole calculus of war and what it means has changed," says the scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Previously, war was declared on a specific date by Congress and then ended on a particular date, Collins said.

"The war on terror could go on ad infinitum," he said. "If we say in times of war, the press must silence or gag itself, what happens if the war never ends?"

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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