TOPICS: National security vs press freedom

In an age of the war on terror, truth may not be clear in many cases and every person does not always define the common good the same way. And that has placed the 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 cell phones.” The implication was that the reporters’ calls were being tracked by the 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 unauthorised release of classified information,” there are times when “the records of a private person are sought” through an established legal process.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said laws on the books seem to indicate that journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information. Some cheer that kind of thinking. And the questions raised are obvious. Are these whistle-blowers heroes or traitors? And, when the media airs allegations, are they complicit in bringing justice or aiding the enemy?

It’s sad, but for some this question has been reduced to another sub-argument in the nation’s all-consuming blue- versus red-America 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 hiring and firing. 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 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 choose to publish or air has always gone though rigorous vetting. And the value of making the information public has been seriously contemplated and weighed.

Second, the debate over stopping government leakers is not about politics; it is about government power. Whistle-blowers and media outlets they ultimately talk to serve a vital role. The press was not meant only to be a megaphone for those in power; 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 honoured.

Ultimately, the question is, will the nation’s security come at the expense of the bedrock principles? And the respective sides in the great blue- vs red-America debate should look beyond the present before they get too vociferous in their arguments. — The Christian Science Monitor