In good company

Tom Lipscomb writes this morning advising me that my post “The Pulitzer Prize for treason” is the subject of a critical Los Angeles Times column by Tim Rutten. Rutten also discusses my Standard column “Exposure.” Rutten takes up Bill Bennett’s and my condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize awarded to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Licbtblau. (Bennett’s includes the award to the Washington Post’s Dana Priest in his condemnation as well.) Because Rutten kindly places me in Bennett’s company, Rutten acknowledges that our condemnation of the award does not emanate from “the lacy fringes of the lunatic extreme but from analysts actively involved in the mainstream’s public conversation, albeit from the ideological right.”

I appreciate Rutten’s drawing attention to my condemnation of the Times and the Pulitzer Prize committee. Rutten writes:

Bennett’s demand that Priest, Risen and Lichtblau be arrested under the Espionage Act — a statute that dates to World War I — echoes a call made months ago in Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard by one of its contributing writers, Scott Johnson, a Minnesota attorney who is one of the principals on the influential Powerline blog.

Put to one side that the most pertinent provision of the Espionage Act (section 798) dates to 1950 and was added expressly to prevent what the Times has wrought with respect to blowing the NSA’s al-Qaeda surveillance program. (Rutten somehow overlooked the recent Commentary magazine feature article with relevant background by Gabriel Schoenfeld: “Did the New York Times violate the Espionage Act?”) Rutten simply refuses to engage the issues: Did the Times’s reportage violate the terms of the Act? Did the Times’s reportage damage the national security of the United States? If the Times violated the law, why shouldn’t it be prosecuted? Rutten presents Bennett’s and my position as follows:

Sweep out the Bastille! Form up the firing squad!

This is not serious. This is a tantrum.

There is a searching discussion to be had — one that never can be completed — on how responsible journalists should handle classified information when reporting on a government that uses the designation as a matter of political expediency and mere convenience, as well as a way to guard the country’s legitimate secrets. Any journalist who doesn’t acknowledge that there are legitimate national secrets is worse than silly; any commentator who pretends that every — or even most — things stamped “classified” is among them probably is grinding his or her ax.

***

[W]e confront an attempt to win through bluster and intimidation what cannot be gained through politics or persuasion.

It takes the prize.

In the conclusion of is column, Rutten adds Hugh Hewitt — more good company — to his indictment of Bennett and me. (Hugh responds to Rutten here.) I don’t detect even the germ of an argument in Rutten’s column contradicting what I wrote here or in the Standard column. In his message to me this morning, Tom Lipscomb characterizes Rutten’s column as “one of the worst-reasoned I have seen in quite a while.” I don’t agree with everything in Tom’s comments on Rutten’s column, but they come from a pro with an insider’s perspective on the news business and are worthy of consideration:

Remember Talleyrand’s remark on Napoleon’s execution of the Duc D’Enghien?

There was NO news value to releasing operational information on Al Qaeda surveillance by our most heavily classified agency. We expect them to do stuff like this. We hope they are damned good at it, in GOP and Dem administrations alike.

And as for who the CIA has convinced to park terrorist suspects before the American shysters’ bar can get to them, we have known since 2003 that the Bushies were going to do everything they could to shake and bake these guys as long as they could. There is no news there…Whether it is Gitmo or Dracula’s castle. What difference does it make. All that was accomplished here was to restate the obvious in the most embarrassing way to the US and its Allies.

And what no one seems to think about…We did a lot of surveillance of putative Communist operatives and Axis operatives in the past when we didn’t even have the luxury of being sure half the phone call was definitely enemy, much less from a foreign base. If anything this is a hell of an improvement in the civil liberties department.

I am always willing to stick it to over-classification…but there needs to be some overpowering news value, particularly if you are risking covert operational details in a war. Moynihan had me as an adviser to his committee on government secrecy. He wanted to cut it back a lot. I agreed. After the cold war and before 9/11 is was mainly being used to bury bureaucratic incompetence as long as possible. Now the Bushies are acting like idiots running around reclassifying material that is already out there in university libraries yet, like a MKVD on amphetamines. It makes them look almost as stupid as the Pulitzer Committee.

After all surfacing the misnamed “Pentagon Papers” (I published the book edition) never threatened the life of a single agent. It was mainly an incredibly tedious CYA screed assembled by the CIA…Relevant to the Pentagon only because it categorically proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that if only DOD had done everything just the way the CIA thought it should several years earlier… things wouldn’t have gotten so out of hand.

And as such it was neither particularly dangerous AND there was some news value in seeing how the insiders were arguing over the conduct of a war that seemed to have everyone confused.

But what did we get from the Post’s or the NYT Pulitzer scoops? They risked covert operations NOW in the midst of a war and the reading public learned not a damned thing.

Finally to show just why the Press has its head so totally distorted about what they think they are “fighting” and why they are so “brave”— read this from today’s Washington Post….complete with the bad reporting no names blank check statement “this effort has been widely seen…” which is code for… “at least everyone I talked to at the Pulitzer announcement and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner agreed….”

“The effort has been widely seen among members of the media, and some legal experts, as the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation, and has worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.”

You see, dear Scott, the simple act of enforcement of the entire Federal classification system of the government intelligence we have had for more than a half a century suddenly “has worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.”

The press, therefore, believes it should decide what should be declassified in the public interest and God forfend if the President does so on any occasion, like outing a liar like Joe Wilson at no risk to intelligence. And if there is a “tense relationship” then government should concede whatever it has to, including national security, since presumably IT has the responsibility for relaxing it.

Now WHAT were we so upset about Valerie Plame’s “classified” status for again?

JOHN adds: I love how liberals ritually recite that the Espionage Act dates from World War I, as though that somehow made compliance with it optional. They don’t have the same view of other old enactments, e.g., the First Amendment (1791). Apparently statutes come with a sunset provision that journalists apply at their discretion, sort of like their right to selectively declassify documents.

It’s perhaps too obvious a point to need stating, but our position on the recent criminal leaks is very simple: the law should be enforced. This is not a novel position that requires a lot of fancy footwork to articulate. On the contrary: there is a heavy presumption that laws should be enforced. No doubt there are some, relatively rare, occasions when it is better not to enforce them. But it is incumbent on advocates of non-enforcement, like Rutten, to offer a persuasive explanation of 1) why this case is an exception to the rule, and 2) how the exception for which they argue can be defined in a way that is workable and principled. “We Democrats know a good leak when we see one” does not satisfy either criterion.

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