Treason? They’re kidding, right? |

Treason? They’re kidding, right?

Jim Scripps

The controversy over the New York Times’ decision to run a story describing federal surveillance of bank records – money reportedly tied to terrorism – is a complex illustration of the conflict between the media’s constitutional imperatives and the government’s desire to operate in secrecy.

As a newspaper person, I tend to favor disclosure over non-disclosure. And in this case, as in the example of the NSA wiretapping case a few months ago, the American public is part of the story. Regular citizens’ financial lives may be under government scrutiny, and it may be happening without their permission or even probable cause. Just like when it was revealed the government listens to Americans’ telephone conversations, the public has a right to question whether those methods are constitutionally proper. The media – especially the much-maligned New York Times – are the ones who give voice to these important issues.

Despite objections from the Bush administration, the Times ran with the story. The newspaper gave the administration an opportunity to justify its position ( “… the administration simply did not make a convincing case that describing our efforts to monitor international banking presented such a danger,” Times Executive Editor Bill Keller stated in an opinion piece), but in the end the Times sided with the public’s right to know. It should be noted that some sensitive information was withheld from publication.

What followed was a Nixonian coordinated attack targeting the New York Times, its alleged left-wing leanings and treasonous countermanding of American safety in a post-9/11 world. Basically, a bunch of blah, blah, blah. The administration sent its lieutenants out on the talk-show circuit, armed with talking points memos:

n Bush characterized the story as “disgraceful.”

n Cheney said the “news media take it upon themselves to disclose vital national security programs. That offends me.”

n New York Rep. Peter King even presumed to know the Times’ motivation behind the coverage – “We’re at war,” he said, “and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.”

And the list goes on.

What seemed to be missing from the talking points, was the fact that several other papers – The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal included – had run their own stories about the same issue. And then those stories multiplied on TV and the Internet. Better yet, Bush had spent considerable time making speeches over the last five years talking about the government’s surveillance of terrorist financing. It doesn’t get more public than that.

So what do the Bush folks hope to accomplish by targeting the Times, having their henchmen suggest “treason” and “Senate hearings,” etc.?

They want to shut the media down, through intimidation.

In their minds, the administration’s right to operate in secrecy supersedes the media’s – and in effect, the people’s – right to question how the government operates. They may have misplaced their copy of the First Amendment – the protection of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition – which indicates clearly that the government operates at the people’s pleasure, and not the other way around. They are also ignoring a key traditional conservative ideology: decentralization of government power.

So far, the administration has not been able to articulate how revelations about things like secret prisons in Eastern Europe, the monitoring of phone calls, look at Web search companies’ records, or even the monitoring of bank accounts (all revealed by media coverage), compromises our national defense. The burden of proof is on the government, because that is how a successful democracy should work -let’s leave the clandestine operations to governments like Iran, North Korea and China.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be contacted at

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