The Bush administration and its allies continue their drumbeat attack on the First Amendment with repeated threats to prosecute the New York Times for disclosing the President’s secret surveillance programs. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has suggested a criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act, Congressman Peter King and Senator Jim Bunning have accused the Times of treason, and Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a resolution condemning the Times for putting “the lives of Americans in danger.”
All this is rank hypocrisy designed to intimidate the press and rally the party faithful, at no small cost to our democracy. The decision of the Times to reveal the secret NSA spy program may have embarrassed the President, but it was a great service to the nation. Any doubt there might have been about the illegality of the NSA program was effectively put to rest by the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Hamdan case. The administration’s only plausible argument that the NSA surveillance program is lawful, even though it plainly violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is that FISA unconstitutionally limits the authority of the President as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy.” Even before Hamdan, this claim was weak, at best. After the Court’s five-to-three decision in Hamdan, that claim is frivolous. In declaring unlawful Bush’s military commissions, the Court in Hamdan reiterated what it said plainly two years ago in Hamdi – even a state of war does not grant the President a “blank check” to run roughshod over the law.
The continuing assertion that the government of the United States can criminally prosecute the New York Times for disclosing to the American people the existence of an unlawful program of surveillance is nothing short of shocking. What does the First Amendment mean if not that the press can inform the American people that their elected representatives have violated the law?
Not only does the Bush administration continue to maintain that the government has the authority to punish the revelation of the administration’s own illegality, but they boldly assert that such punishment is justified because the publication of such information put “the lives of Americans in danger.” With all due respect, the publication of information that our nuclear power plants are insecure puts “the lives of Americans in danger.” Disclosure of the torture at Abu Ghraib put “the lives of Americans in danger.” Even criticism of the war in Iraq puts “the lives of Americans in danger.” What makes this danger any different?
Presumably, the administration and its defenders believe that disclosure of the NSA spy program not only put “the lives of Americans in danger,” but created a “clear and present” danger of “grave” harm. But no one in the administration has ever explained how or why this is so. Moreover, the administration knew full well that the Times was aware of the NSA surveillance program for many months before the Times published the story. If the danger of disclosure was truly “clear,” “present,” and “grave,” why didn’t the administration seek an injunction again publication?
Certainly, as in the Pentagon Papers incident more than twenty-five years ago, the Times would have withheld publication in the face of such an injunction. Moreover, as in the Pentagon Papers case, the government could have litigated an injunction without revealing to the public the secret information at issue. But in all the time the administration knew that the Times was considering publication, it did not seek an injunction against publication.
The reason, to me, seems obvious. The lawyers in the administration knew they could not prove the existence of a danger sufficiently “clear,” “present,” and “grave” to justify an injunction. Rather than test the matter in a court of law, the administration sat passively on its hands and allowed the story to be published. Then, after–the–fact, it accuses the Times of disloyalty and browbeats the press with threats of a criminal prosecution. It makes one wonder exactly who is playing fast-and-loose with the truth – and with the nation’s security.