In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.
Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.*”
Who do you think said that? Some ‘ranting conspiracy theorist’ perhaps? Who else thinks governments deliberately deceive the people to take them to war in foreign lands?
So it’s a bit of a surprise to discover those words were the rulings of a Supreme Court Judge, Justice Hugo Black, in the landmark decision in June 1971 protecting the right of the press to publish government secrets in the Pentagon Papers leaked by the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
This is just another one of those tides in the affairs of men that has completely reversed over the past forty years. What was once mainstream opinion is now beyond the pale.
When Ellsberg was facing 115 years in prison May 1973 for charges under the Espionage Act and evidence of government wiretapping was revealed in court, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges ruling that:
“The totality of the circumstances of this case offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.”
Evidence of government wiretapping in Ellsberg’s case led to the baring of even more government secrets in the Watergate scandal, the imprisonment of dozens of top White House officials and the resignation of President Nixon in August 1974.
Almost exactly thirty years later in May 2003, when the BBC revealed government secrets, leaked by whistle-blower David Kelly, suggesting that Prime Minister Tony Blair had deliberately deceived the people into war in Iraq, there was no judicial ruling protecting the rights of the whistleblower or the press. Instead Kelly was humiliated in public, interrogated in secret and soon after was found dead under a tree with his wrists slit. And a judicial inquiry conducted by Lord Hutton forced the journalist and senior executives of the organisation that had revealed the deception to resign.
Seven years later in 2010, when WikiLeaks published government secrets, leaked by whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, showing that an Apache helicopter had mercilessly gunned-down innocent children and civilians in Iraq, there was no judicial ruling to protect the rights of the whistleblower or the press.
Instead WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, was arrested for Sexcrime, amid calls for his assassination and execution from senior US journalists and politicians, and only escaped extradition by seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he has been sleeping on a couch in the ladies lavatory for the past year. And Manning spent a year in solitary confinement in a 6 by 12 foot windowless cell and another two years in a medium security prison before being sentenced to 35 year imprisonment under the Espionage Act in August this year.
Almost exactly forty years to the day after the charges against Ellsberg were dropped the whistleblower who revealed illegal government wiretapping, not just of one suspect but of the entire world population, had to flee the country and hide out for a month in Hong Kong airport before finding asylum in Russia to escape a life sentence and possible execution under the Espionage Act himself!
If today’s standards had applied in Ellsberg’s day, Ellsberg would still have 75 years of his sentence to serve, secret service agents would have burnt the evidence of illegal wiretapping in the Washington Post basement, Watergate would never have happened and President Nixon would never have resigned.
If the judicial rulings of Ellsberg’s day applied now, Manning and Snowden would be free men and Blair, Bush, Cameron and Obama could all be facing charges in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
No surprise then that, when Tony Blair launched his new law and order campaign in July 2004, he blamed the values of the 60s for most of our current ills.
*Thanks to Observer columnist, John Norton, for re-posting Justice Black’s decision on his blog yesterday: What journalists who attack the publication of Snowden’s revelations have forgotten