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Press shouldn’t be the target in the fight against terrorism

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National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander told the Guardian newspaper this week that he looks forward to U.S. legislation that would address “media leaks.”

The general, who mercifully is due to retire in the coming weeks, said that such legislation, which would apparently be directed at the sort of leaks that have emanated from the secret files Edward Snowden has leaked and is still leaking to the press, would make it easier for his agency to enter into secret agreements with private entities to get access to otherwise private business records.

The general’s position, it appears, is that if it weren’t for the damned media, the NSA could do just about whatever it wants to do.

In any sane universe, that viewpoint should provide all the reason needed to quickly bury any proposed laws to make publication of true information a crime.

There are a lot of people in this country who are making a lot of noise about the First Amendment as it relates to freedom of religion and the Second Amendment as it relates to the right to keep and bear arms. It seems the understanding of the importance of the part of the First Amendment that relates to freedom of the press has receded a bit, and Gen. Alexander’s suggestion that the old alien and sedition acts ought to be resurrected show that some top U.S. officials don’t have any problem with that.

But you should.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prior restraint — the ability to restrict what publications can print before it is printed — is generally a violation of the Constitution. The court has long recognized what the founding fathers knew to be true: one of the best ways to keep a free nation free is to have a robust and unfettered press. Over the past 250 years the medium has changed, but the need for a free press has not.

After the attacks of 2001, this country got a little less free. In the scramble to protect us from terrorists, the freedoms we had long taken for granted were eroded. We used to believe, for example, that our beliefs and our associations with others were our business and ours alone. With the development of the Department of Homeland Security and the rise to the top of the intelligence heap of the NSA and its handmaiden, the military Cyber Command, those freedoms are less certain and are regularly violated by the government. Ironically, it was Edward Snowden’s decision to leak information from the secret files he gathered that brought out just how badly those freedoms are being trampled.

The press in this country has long been the source of nearly all the information that serves to give this nation the most important balance against the abuse of power — the awareness of a free electorate. The greatest check on a government heading out of control is the information held by the governed. We cannot make corrections in our leaders if their excesses, abuses and outright crimes are not brought to light. And in just about every case worth mentioning, it is the free press that has carried that water bucket.

If the New York Times had not published the Pentagon Papers, the war in Vietnam could have slogged on interminably. If the Washington Post had not said to hell with its fierce critics and forged ahead with its investigation of a “second-rate break in”, the crimes of Richard Nixon’s administration would never have come to light. And if The Guardian, and later the Post and the Times, had not published Snowden’s files, the raw, surging power of the NSA would have continued apace.

In all my discussions with people of a diverse political philosophy, I have yet to hear anyone say “Boy, I’m glad they’re monitoring my cellphone use without my knowledge!” That isn’t to say there is no one who believes that; it takes all kinds. But the majority of people understand that the government has to be a body beholden to law, just as we all do as individuals. I would be arrested for tapping a phone call without the sanction of a court; the government must be held to the same standard. If it isn’t, the whole concept of a nation of laws is stood on its head.

Gen. Alexander has, throughout the Snowden incident, maintained a bellicose and arrogant certainty that he is right, no matter what cockamamie idea he wants to put into play, and everyone else is wrong. In his totalitarian world view, “media leaks legislation” is a great idea because it helps his narrow agenda. But great wrongs have often been done in the name of a greater good, and that has not made them any less wrong. The First Amendment protection of the free press is in the first amendment written because it shares primary importance in keeping the nation free. No legislation should be tinkering with that goal.

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