As no doubt many of you already know, conservative commentator Bill Bennett yesterday told his radio listeners that newly minted Pulitzer Prize winners James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times and Dana Priest of the Washington Post should go to jail for revealing the existence of secret anti-terrorism operations. Editor & Publisher has the story:
According to an E&P transcript of the audio of his radio program, Bill Bennett said that the reporters “took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others, that they not release it. They not only released it, they publicized it — they put it on the front page, and it damaged us, it hurt us.
“How do we know it damaged us? Well, it revealed the existence of the surveillance program, so people are going to stop making calls. Since they are now aware of this, they’re going to adjust their behavior … on the secret sites, the CIA sites, we embarrassed our allies…. So it hurt us there.
“As a result are they punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win Pulitzer prizes — they win Pulitzer prizes. I don’t think what they did was worthy of an award — I think what they did is worthy of jail, and I think this investigation needs to go forward.”
He urged his listeners to write the top editors of the two papers and said their addresses were posted on his Web site.
Media Matters reports that when Bennett popped up on CNN’s “The Situation Room” later in the day, Wolf Blitzer neglected to ask him about his remarks.
Of course, the media do not have carte blanche to reveal national-security secrets in a time of war. Col. Robert McCormick, the eccentric publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was nearly prosecuted for treason when one of his reporters revealed after the Battle of Midway, in 1942, that the United States had broken the Japanese code.
But context is everything. The Times and the Post revealed secrets that were unimportant to the enemy and that the American people had a right to know. As I argued yesterday, these Pulitzers are likely to become a cause célèbre among conservatives, who will use this as an example of the liberal media’s treachery. That analysis, though, just doesn’t hold up.
The Times, of course, revealed that the National Security Agency was wiretapping suspected terrorists in the United States without bothering to get a warrant, as required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. We can safely assume that these suspects already knew they were being wiretapped. The Times’ bombshell was that the administration had decided to ignore the law.
The Post revealed the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe where suspected terrorists are interrogated. Again, it’s inconceivable that advance knowledge of these prisons would somehow help the terrorists. So why shouldn’t the American public be informed about what’s being done in its name?
It’s been many years since the line between the media and the government was drawn this starkly over matters of such crucial importance. I suspect we’ve only seen the opening skirmishes so far.