by Jerry Alatalo
“The function of the press is to explore and investigate events, inform the people what is going on, and to expose the harmful as well as the good influences at work. There is no higher function performed under our constitutional regime… A reporter is no better than his source of information. Unless he has a privilege to withhold the identity of his source, he will be the victim of governmental intrigue or aggression. If he can be summoned to testify in secret before a grand jury, his sources will dry up and the attempted exposure, the effort to enlighten the public will be ended…”
“The intrusion of government into this domain is symptomatic of the disease of this society. As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. It is the power to suffocate both people and causes. Those in power, whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it. Now that the fences of the law and the tradition that has protected the press are broken down, the people are the victims. The First Amendment, as I read it, was designed precisely to prevent that tragedy.”
– William O. Douglas (1898-1980) U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Dissent, Earl Caldwell case, 1972)
What has Pulitzer Prize winning journalist James Risen in hot water, and journalists everywhere upset, is his refusal to name the source of so-called classified information from Mr. Risen’s 2006 book “State Of War”. The information published in the book – which represents the classified leak – was the CIA’s 2000 botched attempt to get a former Russian nuclear scientist to transfer intentionally messed-up blueprints for building a nuclear bomb to unknowing Iranian government officials. After Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, the government has passed rules for national security employees to prevent similar leaks, and increased the amount of information that becomes classified.
First, what determines whether information becomes classified or not? An obvious case for classified status is information that includes nuclear bomb blueprints which are real, or not intentionally “messed-up”. Using a simple analogy, the father of four sons aged 7, 8, 10, and 11 who owns handguns “classifies” them in a locked safe where they won’t be touched by the boys. Whoever told James Risen about the faked blueprints was transferring information which leads one to question first: why was such an idea cooked up to begin with? and second: shouldn’t Americans know about the questionable actions carried out by its government?
The first question – why the idea became cooked up – is almost impossible to answer without speaking to the idea’s originator. Perhaps it became considered feasible to throw off the Iranians if they had designs on a bomb. If Iranians, as they claim, have no desire to build a bomb, then messed-up drawings are irrelevant. Using another simple analogy, a husband who isn’t sure, but thinks, his wife might be planning to poison him for the insurance money could “innocently” hand his wife an internet printout on gardening that just “happens” to include a bogus, harmless recipe for a poisonous-to-humans concoction. Whether or not his wife actually planned on poisoning him, he’s covered the worst case scenario, just as the bogus bomb blueprints.
Getting to the point, with regard to government classification of information, is it possible that there is “honorable” classified info and “dishonorable” classified info? Returning to the dad with four sons, imagine that dad has through the years of running his restaurant contracted hit men to murder his competitors or blow up their restaurants. For dad, with his sons, this is “classified information”. So, his “classification” of handguns through placing them in the safe is “honorable”, but his murderous/criminal actions are “dishonorable” classified.
The U.S. government’s applying of “classified” to real nuclear bomb blueprints is “honorable”, but video of American troops from the sky mowing down non-combatants in Iraq, and unconstitutional spying on Americans without their knowledge, is “dishonorable”. A number of questions arise when considering these situations. What percentage of all U.S. classified information is “honorable” or “dishonorable”? Are as yet unreleased files on the murder of President John F. Kennedy filled with classified documents that meet the standards of “dishonorable”?
Does the government have in its possession classified documents related to the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King which any reasonable person would decide belong in the “dishonorable” category? Or Robert F. Kennedy, or Senator Paul Wellstone…? These questions lead one to wonder whether now debated “shield laws” which would allow journalists to keep identities of sources confidential would be better off called “Dishonorable Classification Journalist Act of 2014” or “2014 If It’s Dishonorable Classified You Can Work Freely With Journalists Act” and so on.
The point is that persons who leak classified information of the dishonorable variety are, from a moral and ethical standpoint, worthy of respect, honor, and admiration – certainly not punishment. It is because of dishonorable actions taken by America’s leaders that the United States has suffered a loss of its reputation; allowing the nation to “admit” those dishonorable actions – apologizing in each instance while making proper amends – would begin a process of rehabilitating America’s reputation, while preventing further instances of actions which hurt that same reputation.
It is unknown how many men and women employed by the U.S. government with familiarity of classified documents have considered meeting with journalists because they’re aware of information which is “dishonorable”. James Risen published information which has yet to become determined honorable or dishonorable. If, after examining the specifics of the event he published, it becomes clear the classified info is of the honorable variety – that’s one thing. If the original event becomes judged as dishonorable, Mr. Risen needs to be released from any further legal proceedings.
In the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, information they leaked is viewed by reasonable men and women as “classified dishonorable”, so they should rightly be released from legal consequences. The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” is appropriate in the case of Manning and Snowden. In the case of Mr. Risen, probably appropriate as well. In the age of instant, worldwide dissemination of information, “my country right or wrong” has become an anachronistic phrase no longer of any value. Holding on to the idea of “my country right or wrong” only maintains the potential for unfortunate further erosion of America’s reputation through acceptance of the “wrong” – the dishonorable.
Legal scholars, with regard to whistleblower sources/classified information/journalism, should seriously consider advocating addition of the honorable/dishonorable dimension.
The best argument for doing so is the Iraq War, based on lies – a historic, horrific human catastrophe — which damaged America’s international reputation in immeasurable ways. If journalists had reported the most consequential “wrong classified information”, provided to them by sources who understood the difference between honor and dishonor, then one million men, women, and children would still be alive today.
Journalists’ ability to protect identities of their sources is essential for citizens’ right to “speak truth to power” – at times corrupt power. That journalistic privilege – without which corrupt power can “suffocate people and causes” – gives both journalists and the people power to speak truth.
(Thank you to TheRealNews at YouTube)