The foundation of freedom in this country is a free press. The foundation of George W. Bush’s plan to ruin the county is elimination of a free press.
Writes Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley in USA Today:
This month, Congress is faced with a most inconvenient crime. With the recent disclosure of a massive secret database program run by the National Security Agency involving tens of millions of innocent Americans, members are confronted with a second intelligence operation that not only lacks congressional authorization but also appears patently unlawful. In December, the public learned that the NSA was engaging in warrantless domestic surveillance of overseas communications — an operation many experts believe is a clear federal crime ordered by the president more than 30 times.
What is most striking about these programs is that they were revealed not by members of Congress but by members of the Fourth Estate: Journalists who confronted Congress with evidence of potentially illegal conduct by this president that was known to various congressional leaders.
In response, President Bush has demanded to know who will rid him of these meddlesome whistleblowers, and various devout members have rushed forth with cudgels and codes in hand.
Now, it appears Congress is finally acting — not to end alleged criminal acts by the administration, mind you, but to stop the public from learning about such alleged crimes in the future. Members are seeking to give the president the authority to continue to engage in warrantless domestic surveillance as they call for whistleblowers to be routed out. They also want new penalties to deter both reporters and their sources.
The debate has taken on a hopeful Zen-like quality for besieged politicians: If a crime occurs and no one is around to reveal it or to report it, does it really exist?
Turley underscores the primary method of operation for the Bush Administration. Forget the law and use intimidation to rule. Why does it work? Because the lackeys in Congress aid him in this unconstitutional activity.
Congress has become a sad parody of itself. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush proudly said he had repeatedly ordered the domestic surveillance operation and would continue to do so. In perhaps the most bizarre moment in modern congressional history, members from both houses proceeded to give him a standing ovation — cheering their own institutional irrelevancy.
Willful blindness, however, will only go so far when newspapers continually put these acts on the front pages. In addition to new possible penalties for whistleblowers, members of Congress are blocking the enactment of a long-overdue federal shield law to protect journalists from having to disclose their sources to prosecutors — despite the fact that the majority of states have passed such laws as an essential component to good government.
In the meantime, the Bush administration has carried out a scorched-earth campaign against whistleblowers, including demanding that employees sign waivers of any confidentiality agreements with reporters and using polygraphs designed to uncover anyone speaking with the media. It has also sought to convince a federal court in Virginia to radically extend the reach of the 1917 Espionage Act to cover anyone who even hears classified information while researching or reporting on government policy.
Turley’s comments should serve as a clarion call for action in this county. He concludes:
It is time to separate true patriots from cringing politicians. The assertion of unchecked power by this president has created a danger to our constitutional system. Congress must demand an independent investigation of these programs. It must also pass a federal shield law and strengthen whistleblower protections to preserve the only current check on governmental abuse. It should change the federal law to prevent the abusive use of the Espionage Act, such as in the AIPAC case. Finally, it should revamp the intelligence oversight system, which has long been viewed as a pathetic paper tiger with either little interest or ability in checking abuses.
The Framers gave us a free press as the final safety net if all other checks and balances in the three branches of government should fail. With the failure of both parties in Congress to exercise oversight responsibilities, the importance of a free press has been vividly demonstrated. The public now has a choice. It can live in self-imposed ignorance, or it can fight for an open society. Not hearing about alleged crimes by your government is certainly a comfort, but not having crimes occur would be an even greater one.