Thinking that they could protect their secret campaign by pretending that anyone who opposed them was a “criminal,” a “traitor,” and a “terrorist,” the advocates of a supreme national security state free from the restraints of public transparency and democratic oversight have hoisted themselves on their own petard: they have made any step they take to protect secrets appear to be an effort to transform our democracy into a dictatorship.
The Bush-Obama war against reporters is both intensifying and getting more entangled in its own internal contradictions. And, of course, the White House attack on press freedom comes in the very relevant context of a long, secretive White House campaign to undermine privacy rights across the board, exemplified both by its parallel war against whistleblowers and its steady expansion of arbitrarily asserted rights to spy on Americans who have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
As the slow but endless Bush-Obama effort to prosecute ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for allegedly passing classified information to NYT reporter James Risen proceeds toward trial, it has already had the broader result of effectively destroying the traditional protection granted reporters to protect their sources. But simultaneously, Obama is voicing support for a proposed new law that is being sold as an effort to strengthen the protection of reporters’ sources. The progress of this legislation can be tracked at govtrack.us; look for Congressional action starting in September. As for the deeper question of whether this particular bill is primarily designed to protect investigations into abuses of power or in face designed to restrict the critical watchdog role of the public, Matthew Delman points out that some Democratic Congressional leaders plan to make a fatal distinction between reporters employed by the MSM and investigative bloggers (who are quite likely to be less amenable to government pressure to self-censor).
Here we have an interesting duplication of the contradiction between Obama publicly claiming that NSA is not authorized to spy on Americans and the recently exposed evidence to the contrary. In an environment of whistleblowing, reporters with an independent attitude (at least a few), and even U.S. Senators willing to defend civil liberties (at least a few), Obama is finding it increasingly embarrassing simultaneously to proclaim himself a defender of the public interest and in fact to be the leading proponent of the rising national security state.
The above could all be criticized, admittedly, on the grounds of blurring real distinctions among passing secrets to reporters, blowing whistles to reveal specific evidence of criminal behavior by officials, protecting sources accused of criminal behavior, protecting Americans by searching for evidence of guilt through spying (while, if only it were true) carefully avoiding any misuse of that information to suppress political dissent, etc. However, it is precisely the extraordinary efforts to blur these distinctions by Obama and those who support his covert campaign inherited from the Bush-Cheney Neo-Cons to construct a national security state immune from public criticism that have created the confusion. Thinking that they could protect their secret campaign by pretending that anyone who opposed them was a “criminal,” a “traitor,” and a “terrorist,” the advocates of a supreme national security state free from the restraints of public transparency and democratic oversight have hoisted themselves on their own petard: they have made any step they take to protect secrets appear to be an effort to transform our democracy into a dictatorship.
This outcome is unfortunate. Situations justifying secrecy exist. Classifying information that should be public to prevent embarrassment and classifying power grabs to prevent popular oversight are both always inexcusable in their own right; they are also dangerous because classification has a legitimate role even in a democracy. When officials blur these fundamental distinctions for their own self-serving purposes, they cause great harm to democracy and national security. Both they and we would have been far better served had Federal officials in the post-9/11 era made a greater effort to follow the rules of democracy.