Freedom Of The Press And National Security
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Thomas Jefferson~
During the course of this past week, I’ve watched the story unfold of the raid on the Associated Press (AP) by the Department of Justice. The Justice Department obtained records for 20 different phone lines (both work and personal) from AP personnel. Under the law, when it comes to a media entity, the Justice Department is to give the media organization advanced notice of a warrant or subpoena unless it is felt that doing so would jeopardize the investigation. In this particular case, the AP was not given advanced noticed. So what in particular was the Justice Department looking for? They are investigating a leak in the department to the media. The investigation started after the AP ran a story last May about a counter-terrorism investigation in Yemen.
I’m not here to state that this is a scandal and that something illegal was done. This is for investigators to seek out and for Congress to question. Yes, we in the media have the right to question, as well. But these answers, along with all the factual information, have yet to be released. So it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions without all of the information that is needed to form an opinion on these instances. Congress has told the Obama administration repeatedly that it needs to stop the leaks of information related to national security. With the AP raid, however, Congress is not only calling into question its legality but also if the Justice Department went too far to stop the leaks. During a recent appearance on Capitol Hill, Attorney General Eric Holder (who had recused himself from the leak investigation prior to the raid at the AP) said the leaks warranted a strong response from the federal government. Some members of Congress, including Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has said a media shield law would have been needed in this instance to prevent this from happening. Such a law has been proposed but has been defeated in the past. And as each congressman has stated this claim, they have not taken notice that in the particular piece of legislation, a national security investigation would have been exempt. Since 9/11, the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have often made broad exceptions to the law in terms of national security.
“The free press is the mother of all our liberties and of our progress under liberty.” Adlai E. Stevenson~
The Founding Fathers included within the First Amendment to the Constitution our right to freedom of the press. As each branch of government was a check on the others, the press was given the freedom to check on all of them and to make those answer to the public. State-run media only propagates the government’s actions to make the public believe such actions and laws are necessary. The press of our new republic needed and required freedom from government censorship in order to keep the government in check rather than the people. Without the ability to know information… without the ability to question our elected leaders… then democracy can’t survive or progress. It will just deteriorate into despotism. As stated in the Stevenson quote above, freedom of the press is essential to any democratic (or republican) form of government. The final say should always lie with the people, and the people have the right to be informed.
The raid at the AP does seem excessive. Surely, there were other ways to find out the necessary information. One of the biggest assets with our press is the ability to speak anonymously. Could people now fear that this is under threat? That their cover could be blown? Yes, we should not have leaks in regards to national security… unless there is wrongdoing. However, could this raid have a trickle down effect that could keep people from talking on any range of subjects? Without the ability to keep people’s identity secret, the press would have a difficult time doing its job. In its quest to find a government leak, what else could the Justice Department uncover during its search of the phone records? Wouldn’t that be classified under a privacy violation? In regards to a government leak, this is not the media’s problem or responsibility. This is the responsibility of the government to find it on its own end. This does not mean that a journalist cannot be called in front of a grand jury if required to do so. In Branzburg v. Hayes (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect a journalist the right to refuse a subpoena by a grand jury. However, this is a particular individual and not a raid of an office and obtaining information from several different journalists… both work related and private. Though the government did at least have a subpoena for the records, they still need to walk the fine line between national security and freedom of the press. They need to remember that that particular burden falls on them and not upon us. In the meantime, I shall continue to watch as this unfolds. The freedom of the press is vital to our society, to our government, and to our nation. We cannot allow it to be trampled on.
“To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” James Madison~