National security vs. freedom of the press

The media must monitor the powerful, not just serve as their mouthpiece.

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Most everyone loves a whistle-blower. When there are shady dealings or bureaucratic bunglings, often it is the whistle-blower, the guy or gal on the inside with the unfailing moral compass who simply can't bear it anymore, who comes out the hero.

Sherron Watkins, Enron's famous insider, not only exposed that company's accounting scams, her testimony before Congress made her a star. She was one of Time magazine's people of the year in 2002. And she later went on to become a well-known consultant and public speaker.

How can you not love someone like Ms. Watkins who puts it all on the line for truth, justice, and the common good - unless, of course, you're Ken Lay?

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But it's not always that clean in the age of the "war on terror." Truth may be clear in many cases, but the common good is not always defined the same way by every person. And that has placed the news media in an awkward situation.

Last week, ABC News reported that two of its correspondents were warned by a source, "It's time for you to get some new cellphones, quick." The implication was that the reporters' phone calls were being tracked by government so it could learn who their confidential sources were.

The FBI later acknowledged that, in cases where it was taking "logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act was committed by a government employee by the unauthorized release of classified information," there are times when "the records of a private person are sought" - including a journalist's - through an established legal process.

On Sunday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said laws on the books seem to indicate that journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

Some undoubtedly cheer that kind of thinking. Anything to keep us safe. And the questions this scenario raises are obvious. Are these whistle-blowers heroes or traitors? And, when the media publishes and airs their allegations, are they complicit in bringing justice or aiding the enemy?

It's sad, but for some this question has been reduced to just another subargument in the nation's all-consuming blue- versus red-America political debate. President Bush's supporters see turncoats in the press reports and his detractors see warriors for truth. But before everyone suits up in his and her red and blue jerseys, they should consider what's at stake.

First, the media doesn't treat national security leaks the way they do speculation about cabinet hirings and firings. The New York Times sat on its National Security Agency wiretap story for a year before running it in December. Despite multiple leaks of CIA official Valerie Plame's name to the press, only one journalist ran with it - and that's noteworthy.

Pressure to be first with news has increased in recent years, but news outlets still have an extremely high standard for anything concerning the nation's safety and the lives of its people. Any information they ultimately choose to publish or air has almost always gone though rigorous vetting. And the value of making the information public has been seriously contemplated and weighed.

Second, whatever anyone says, the debate over stopping government leakers is not about politics; it is about government power. Whistle-blowers and the media outlets they ultimately talk to serve a vital role - one that was imagined by the founders of this country. The press was not meant only to be a megaphone for those in power - a means to keep people informed of what they were doing - it was to be a monitor of power.

Are there risks to this approach where national security is concerned? To some extent, yes. The media's concern is not a guarantee.

But that risk has to be taken if the Founding Fathers' primary concern, the fear of government tyranny, is to be honored. There has to be a place of last resort for government workers to go when they feel their employer is in the wrong.

Ultimately, the question is, will the nation's security come at the expense of the nation's bedrock principles?

And the respective sides in the great blue- versus red-America debate should look beyond the present before they get too vociferous in their arguments. They may soon find that those arguments are changing.

After all, Republicans won't be in charge of the White House forever, and Democrats probably won't always be the ones rejoicing when whistle-blowers come forward.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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