The tension between power and the press, between spinning and searching for truth, between disinformation and information, is of course endemic to the human condition itself. And in trying times like these, when reporters at major news organizations are facing jail time for refusing to disclose confidential source information and it looks as if things are going to hell, it is strangely consoling to recall that others before us have also traveled on what must have seemed to be the road to perdition.
The Pentagon Papers case and the Watergate scandal about Richard Nixon's White House still represent the bleakest moments and the loftiest triumphs of journalism in contemporary America. They provide an invaluable perspective as we ponder the future and assess the tectonic damage to our long-cherished freedoms of speech and information in the past three years in the wake of the unimaginable carnage of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the weeks and months before Sept. 11, the Bush administration's obsession with secrecy and its aggressive control tactics had already become apparent. For example, instead of turning his gubernatorial papers over to the Texas State Library and Archives, as tradition would have it, Gov. Bush, in his last hours, tried to shelter his official records inside his father's presidential library at Texas A&M University, outside the jurisdiction of the strong Texas public information law. He was overruled by the state attorney general.
In the summer of 2001, Vice President Cheney refused to release basic information about meetings he and other administration officials had held - on government time and property - with energy company executives to help formulate federal policies, a position on which he remains steadfastly adamant.
And a month before Sept. 11, the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed Associated Press reporter John Solomon's home telephone records. As Solomon, the AP deputy Washington bureau chief, told me, "The Justice Department has indicated to us that they were actually trying to stop the publication of a story that I was working on and tried to find out who I was talking to and cut off the flow of information. So it does get into the issue of prior restraint, along with First and Fourth Amendment issues.''
Government news blackout
As we all know too well, in the weeks immediately after Sept. 11, the Bush administration obtained passage of the USA Patriot Act, with no public debate or amendments, among other things, giving federal authorities more power to access e-mail and telephone communications. The federal government detained hundreds of people indefinitely without releasing even the most basic information about them. Attorney General John Ashcroft described the news blackout in Orwellian fashion, "It would be a violation of the privacy rights of individuals for me to create some kind of list.''
It is hard to overstate the weeks immediately after Sept. 11. In 300 cases, federal authorities were granted more power to access government records by executive order, or proposed new laws to sharply curtail their availability, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More recently, sunshine activists are most alarmed about the Homeland Security Act, especially its Protected Critical Infrastructure Information section.
Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive in Washington, wrote in National Security and Open Government, "The government has successfully framed the debate after 9/11 as terrorism fighters versus civil libertarians, as soldiers versus reporters, as hawks versus doves. In wartime, the poundage of the former will always outweigh the latter. ... We need to place openness where it belongs, not only at the center of our values, but also at the center of our strategy for security.''
Both the congressional Sept. 11 investigation and the 9/11 Commission appointed by President Bush separately documented extensive "intelligence hoarding'' and petty bureaucratic turf wars inside the government, excessive secrecy for all the wrong reasons and the dire consequences of not sharing information. The 9/11 Commission concluded, "We believe American and international public opinion might have been different - and so might the range of options for a president - had they (the American people) been informed of (the growing al-Qaida danger).''
Besides educating the American people about the Vietnam War, the greatest result of courageous publication of the Pentagon Papers was the confidence it imbued in newsrooms all across America.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the Pentagon Papers case words we should all remember, "In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry - in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.''
Chuck Lewis is executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, 910 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; Web site: www.publicintegrity.org.
© 2004 Billings Gazette