Make us your home page

The Feed

What you're talking about today

Can Reporters Committ Treason By Doing Their Jobs?



It was an incendiary news report about a top-secret government eavesdropping program that sparked punitive legislation from Congress and calls for treason prosecution from admintration officials.

But, as University of Minnesota law professor Jane Kirtley noted a month ago in a letter to U.S. House members, government officials in 1986 eventually got over an NBC report that an accused spy may have tipped the Soviets to a submarine-based listening effort and stories on intercepts of Libyan government communications.

Back then, CIA director William Casey wanted to prosecute news organizations for treason and U.S. Sen. Ted "bridge to nowhere" Stevens wanted to pass a law requiring those convicted of espionage to forfeit all property tied to the crime -- meaning news outlets found guilty might have to surrender their businesses to the government.

And now that least one Congressman has called for the New York Times to be prosecuted on charges of treason -- just one month after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to rule out such a prosecution for the newspaper's revelations on domestic spying by the National Security Agency -- Kirtley wonders if we have not traveled back to the future in a striking way.

"It's kind of spooky that almost exactly 20 years ago this happened...(and) although the espionage laws have never been used to prosecute the press (in America), that's not to say someone, somewhere, might not try," she said. "And if we are going to allow the prosecution of the press for publication of certain facts, what we've done is create an official Secrets Act. I have to think that criminalizing certain types of information is not what the founders of this country had in mind."

But in the wake of stories last week in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times detailing a global effort to track terrorist funds, some politicians and pundits were advocating exactly that -- with the New York Times taking the brunt of criticism as the lead news organization in reporting the story and for its perceived history as a symbol of liberal news bias.

"The New York Times Just Doesn't Give a Damn About National Security" read the headline on a dispatch from the conservative Media Research Center advocating the Times be prosecuted for treason. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King -- who once accused the Times of colluding with then-Presidential candidate John Kerry to bolster his arguments against the Iraq war -- said the newspaper was "more concerned about a left-wing elitist agenda than it is about the security of the American people." Even local radio personality Tedd Webb advocated charging "anybody who derails a top secret government program designed to protect us" with treasion and executing them.

Administration officials from President Bush to vice president Dick Cheney and outgoing treasury secretary John Snow have all condomned the stories, saying their publication has reduced the program's effectiveness. In a letter to readers Sunday, Times editor Bill Keller noted the newspaper had consulted with administration officials for weeks, considering their pleas that they hold the story, ultimately concluding "our default position -- our job -- is to publish information if we are convinced it is fair nd accurate, and our biggest failures have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or report fully enough."

Strip away the election-year posturing and partisan catcalls, and you find a tension Kirtley said has always existed between government, which works to keep its secrets, and the press, which seeks to expose them. One question that surfaces -- as government officials and supporters ratchet up the criticism of news organizations which reported the banking story, do they run the risk of permanently hampering independent reporting on national security issues?

It's one thing to say the Times should have respected national security enough to hold a story on a program which seems legal, if invasive. It's another to say they should face criminal charges for making the decision to publish. But in the ever-heated national debate on these issues, the two positions are growing tougher to distinguish.

"One of the things the government has worked hard at doing is convincing people the press is irrelevant at best and at worst is the enemy," she said, noting some called for the Chicago Tribune to be prosecuted when it revealed that allies had cracked a Japanese cipher code in World War II. "The question is: Who decides what information should be kept secret? Are you going to take Dick Cheney at his word, or are you going to want to find out for yourself?"

But reporters thought they had a legal right to keep confidential sources secret, until a series of court decisions winnowed away that priviledge at the federal level. And though the war on terror is conflict with no clear end or defined conclusion -- will every terrorist who wants America destroyed ever be vanquished? -- arguments that rules of reporting should be different at a time of war carry weight with some people.

Still, when I searched Google on the terms "journalism" and "treason," the countries which surfaced read like a who's who of media oppression: China, Russia, Ethiopia, Peru. (Times business reporter Kris Hundley had a moving story Sunday on a Chinese man whose speech to western media earned him a beating which took away his ability to walk). Is this the tradition of press freedom America should be emulating?

"I find it very distressing when folks don't seem to recognize the importance on an independent media," said Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. "I've got this notion that somebody should keep an eye on what government is doing -- and that job falls to the press."

New Website for local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13

For many long years, local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 has offered a web site a step behind other area Tv stations. But that will change soon, with the debut of a redesigned site in line with the company's goal of developing a souped-up, common style for web pages of every station. With the URL, the new site offers a greater mix of news stories and features -- still in beta testing...

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours