Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Finally...But Weakly

It took the Washington Post more than twenty-four hours to respond to the latest outrageous pronouncement from Attorney Generalissimo Alberto Gonzales, and then it did so only weakly. The editorial in today's edition seemed content to point to the regime's inappropriate reliance on a World War I vintage anti-espionage law without clearly setting forth the reasons why such reliance will in effect deprive the American public of one of the most important tools of democracy: the truth.

ATTORNEY General Alberto R. Gonzales, asked this weekend whether he believes he can prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, made a statement that should chill the bones of every American who values a vigorous press: "It depends on the circumstances." Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Gonzales explained, "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility. That's a policy judgment by the Congress in passing that kind of legislation. We have an obligation to enforce those laws." But presenting the administration's radical new strategy as mere deference to Congress is profoundly dishonest.

The administration is seeking to convert a moribund World War I-era espionage law into an American version of Britain's Official Secrets Act. Mr. Gonzales is correct that the law, which bans the transmission of national defense information to anyone not cleared to receive it, would -- if read literally -- make criminals out of journalists who publish such material. For that matter, it would also permit the jailing of whistle-blowers, academics who write about leaked information, members of Congress who disclose secrets and, theoretically, even readers of newspapers who discuss the stories. Precisely because of the law's unthinkable scope, the First Amendment has long been understood to limit its application. Government has gone after officials who promise to protect the nation's secrets and then fail to do so -- but generally not against citizens who receive those secrets.

Criminalizing such disclosures would be antithetical to the American tradition. Yet the administration has set about doing it without even asking Congress....And as the attorney general's comments make clear, it is considering prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs. It is a dangerous road.

Once again, one of the premier newspapers in the country fails to clearly enunciate the difference between espionage and whistle blowing, between leaking for political gain and revealing the illegal and unconstitutional behavior of the government. In the past two years we have seen plenty of examples of both sides of this coin, so you'd think the press would finally get it.

Still, as weak as these tentative first steps were, it at least is a beginning.


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