Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Scooter Libby, The Press, Free Speech, and The Big Lie

Now that Scooter Libby is on his way to prison, we might pause to reflect on any number of impacts of the Wilson/Plame/Libby affair. Here I'll make a couple of observations about the impact on freedom of speech and the press.

1) The case went a long way towards discrediting the perennial proposal for a federal reporter/source privilege. That proposal was already losing ground due to the erosion of any principled basis for limiting such a privilege to "professional" news gatherers in an era when any idiot with an internet connection can call himself a journalist by writing a blog. (Ahem.) But it got another kick in the teeth from Judith Miller, who showed that reporters will not just be interested in providing confidentiality to whistle-blowers. Well-connected members of the press will also try to shield sources whose very disclosures of information aim to manipulate the public. Most of this damage was done before the trial, but the trial showed the cozy relationship between the elite Washington press corps and high-ranking govt officials in a way that reflected badly on both.

2) In the current period of national-security crisis, the Bush administration deserves credit for not attempting to silence its critics with the most forceful means at the disposal of a nation-state. We have had no prosecutions for sedition or the like, nor any blacklists. In its official statements, the administration has even said that dissent is not unpatriotic.

At the same time, only a fool could miss the implications of numerous statements by the administration and its political allies that in fact do question the patriotism of their critics. The Libby trial revealed that these statements were part of a larger campaign to discredit administration critics regardless of the validity of their criticisms. I don't actually believe that Armitage, Rove, Cheney, or anybody else in the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity as a means of "outing" her as a spy and thus putting her in danger. Rather, the point was to discredit Joe Wilson as simply a careerist who was trying to exaggerate his own importance so as to push his own critical view of the administration's case for war. If this strategy had not involved the arguably illegal disclosure of a CIA agent's identity, it would not have led to the Fitzgerald investigation and the Libby conviction. But it still would have been troubling. The government is entitled to speak out in favor of its view of facts and policy, and that includes robust criticism of the arguments of those who disagree. In some circumstances, even ad hominem attacks (in the literal sense of ad hominem) would be appropriate. (E.g., "Mr. X denies that Saddam has WMDs, but Mr. X also denies that human beings evolved from other animals, so he can't be well informed." No, wait, the administration wouldn't have made that argument, but you get the basic idea.) But one would hope for something in addition to ad hominem attacks on critics.

The picture of the administration that emerged from the Libby trial strongly resonates with Ron Suskind's quotation of a Bush staffer denigrating administration critics as part of the "reality-based community." The Bush administration's efforts to manage public debate about the case for the Iraq war, both then and now, have had the same divorced-from-reality quality. Or, more precisely, those efforts have aimed to, in the words of the same staffer, "create [their] own reality." At every turn, deliberately create the misimpression that there was an operational connection between Saddam and 9/11; cherry-pick and selectively present the evidence of WMDs; then deny that you ever did either; and cite the enemy's exploitation of the chaos your own policies unleashed as justification for those very policies.

Government by The Big Lie is not by itself a violation of freedom of speech. Critics can and do unmask the lie. But as Churchill said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." And by then, the administration operating, outside the reality-based community will , in the words of Suskind's source, "act again, creating other new realities."


egarber said...

On observation (1):

I know it’s easy to get sucked into the concerns about government officials manipulating journalists (vs. acting as whistleblowers, etc.), but I think we have to sit back and ask these questions post-Plame:

What signal does this affair send to future government officials about the risk of interacting with reporters anonymously? Granted, the reporters in question apparently received permission to release names, but is there now added likelihood that some future source might simply conclude it’s too risky to talk anonymously with reporters? The answer affects not only whistleblowers, but the type of transactional access that allows books like “State of Denial” to come into existence, works (if done well) that get us much closer to the truth than what officials tell us publicly.

Now, it’s possible that I’m blowing this out of proportion. After all, Judith Miller was in bed with these guys, and I suppose it’s arguable that she was complicit in the lawbreaking itself (at least that’s one argument floating around on the blogs). Following this line of thinking, a source working with a real journalist shouldn’t have to worry about being “outed.”

But it’s critical to understand that these lines are seldom clear as stories unfold, no matter how history sees them. As an example, consider Mark Felt’s correspondence with Bob Woodward.

In retrospect, there is widespread acceptance that Felt was a whistleblower who performed well in uncovering rampant corruption. But at the time he was considering coming forward, he knew he could have been criminally prosecuted for leaking “national security” information, so he needed absolute assurance that Woodward would conceal his identity no matter what. In other words, he didn’t know how he’d be viewed long-term – all he knew is that it was very fluid, and that he was taking a huge risk.

In the end, my point is that there’s a transcendent concern at play here. If we want the press to effectively play its role in chipping away facades to get closer to the truth, we’ll have to suffer the Judith Millers of the world, I think. But my fear is that a cynical backlash against anonymous sources -- and possibly weaker legal protections for journalists -- will create a type of chilling effect that keeps otherwise willing officials quiet in the future. And might that effectively kill the next Watergate story?

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