October 11, 2007


The tongue twisters: In the last of our series on civil liberties, we look at the difficulty of reconciling traditional freedoms of expression with the new demands of national security (The Economist, Oct 11th 2007)

Thanks to its constitution, and especially the first amendment, the United States gives greater protection to freedom of expression than any other country. Free expression generally trumps libel, prejudicial comment about pending court cases, and so-called “hate speech”. Even so, claims Peter Osnos, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank, since September 2001 the Bush administration's attempts “to intimidate and punish the media, or at least to manipulate and mislead it, represents one of the most concerted assaults on the first amendment since it was written.”

Under American law, government documents may be classified only to protect national security. Presidents have at times no doubt stretched the definition, but George Bush has gone further than any. Partly as a result of an executive order of 2003, the number of documents being stamped secret or classified has almost quadrupled—from 5.8m under Bill Clinton in 1996 to more than 20m last year, according to figures released by the Information Security Oversight Office (part of America's national archives). Peter Galison, a Harvard professor, reckons that “the classified universe...is certainly not smaller and very probably much larger than [the] unclassified one.” If true, more is kept hidden than revealed.

Government secrecy should be minimized because it is counterproductive as regards the ends of government (like security), not because it makes the media's job harder. It's kind of bizarre that the press insists that the role of the media must be adversarial, on the one hand, but, on the other, wants their supposed adversary to do all the heavy lifting for them. Meanwhile, in order to vindicate the republican concern for checks and balances and separation of powers, libel law should be brought back into favor so that individuals may have some recourse against the disproportionately powerful modern media.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2007 4:40 PM

The conduct of war, and of international relations, which is war by other means, requires secrecy and more than secrecy, deception and misdirection.

American diplomatic and constitutional history makes this most clear. Remember, James Knox Polk lied; people died.

The genius of the American system is the stealth and cold, brutal purposefulness of its foreign policy. It was intended to be so, I contend, the classically educated founders having an appreciation of the Roman efficiency of military dictatorship coexisting with republican principles during the period of the Republic and of the failure of politicized war and defense, as typified by the failed Polish Commonwealth.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 11, 2007 6:04 PM

They see the role as adversarial, but they act as if that means overtly hostile. It is one thing to be skeptical of government's claims, but such another to actively undermine that government.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2007 8:07 AM