So we’re the problem


When Eric Lichtblau and James Risen reported in the June 22 New York Times that the CIA and the Treasury Department have been secretly monitoring international and domestic bank transactions since shortly after 9/11, the response by the administration and the Republican Party was swift and harsh.

Less than a week later Republican congressmen introduced a resolution to condemn media outlets for reporting sensitive or leaked information.

President Bush, who was reportedly ‘“outraged’” at the Times’ transgression, spoke out at a Republican fundraiser in St. Louis, saying ‘“There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it and no excuse for any newspaper to print it.’”

Forget for a moment that a secret spying program based on emergency economic powers granted to the president certainly classifies as ‘“news,’” and try to remember a time not so long ago when the issue of classified information and the press, specifically the New York Times, came to the national fore.

In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a report to detail extensively the history of US involvement in Vietnam. The thing ran about 7,000 pages, with documentation and commentary.

In 1971 the Times got a hold of many of these pages and began to use them in a series of articles.

President Nixon’s response to the Gray Lady was reportedly a bit less restrained than Bush’s, and no punches were pulled in the actions that followed.

The president obtained a federal injunction which forced the Times to cease and desist, though the Times filed an appeal. Meanwhile the story was subsequently reported by the Washington Post and then the Boston Globe.

The case went to the Supreme Court, by which time it became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Like the last go-round, an unpopular war wages on and the incident and its aftermath fall on a divided population. But while the Pentagon Papers story fueled the growing fire of public suspicion concerning government behavior, this current saga is raising ire about the responsibilities of the media, even from the media itself.

The National Review, for one, called for the revocation of the Times’ White House press credentials. Bill O’Reilly is on board. And we have no doubts that by the time this editorial hits the streets, Ann Coulter will have mouthed the word ‘“treason’” enough times to make herself hoarse (but very rich).

What hasn’t changed is the role of the press.

The Supreme Court upheld the rights of the New York Times to publish the information that surfaced from the Pentagon Papers, based principally on the theory that the public has the right to know what its government is doing, especially when the government is doing things of a dubious nature.

The theory, forwarded by Justice Potter Stewart and upon which five of his fellow Supreme Court justices agreed, is that the press in a free society acts as a surrogate for the populace who has neither the time nor the inclination to gather and sift through the information that they have a right to know.

And in 1971 all justices agreed that government should have no power of restraint against the press.

Let’s not forget that.