The Times and the mob

Yesterday the New York Times posted a letter from Times executive editor Bill Keller responding to critics of the Times’s disclosure of the administration’s classified terrorist finance tracking system. Our friend Hugh Hewitt has parsed the letter and writes that “Mr. Keller belives you are easily confused.” Hugh’s gloss on the letter is charitable; based on the letter, he could also have posited that Mr. Keller is stupid. That too might explain the letter’s sheer failure to address the Times’s placing itself above the espionage laws of the United States. Mr. Keller is probably not stupid, but there is not a single sentence of his lengthy letter that could be quoted to disprove the hypothesis that he is.

In his column today on the subject of the Times story, Michael Barone notes that the Times story was based on “nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives” who were apparently the sources for the story. Barone writes:

[I]t certainly is in order to prosecute government officials who have abused their trust by disclosing secrets, especially when those disclosures have reduced the government’s ability to keep us safe. And pursuit of those charges would probably require reporters to disclose the names of those sources. As the Times found out in the Judith Miller case, reporters who refuse to answer such questions can go to jail.

The Times of course has no constitutional privelege to protect the identity of its sources. These sources could and should be prosecuted for violating the fundamental laws that govern their conduct. If the administration cannot summon the political will to prosecute the Times, the administration should at the least, in cases involving serious breaches of national security, abandon the policy of treating reporters as witnesses of last resort. It should promptly call Keller, Risen, Lichtblau et al. before a grand jury in which they are asked to identify their sources and given the Judith Miller treatment when they refuse.

The current spectacle of such brazen defiance of the law will itself breed contempt for the law and for the government. Today the Times embodies the essence of the “mobocratic spirit” against which Lincoln warned in his great 1838 Young Men’s Lyceum speech on “The perpetuation of our political institutions”:

[G]ood men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed–I mean the attachment of the People.


I know the American People are much attached to their Government;–I know they would suffer much for its sake;–I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.

Lincoln feared the “mobocratic spirt” at large across the country in the hands of ignorant men who took justice into their own hands and committed violent outrages. Today the same “mobocratic spirit” can be seen in the hands of the smug sophisticates at the Times and elsewhere who share this in common with the mobs of Lincoln’s day: “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”


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