Here's what passes for good news when it comes to a free press these days: two weeks ago, the Supreme Court refused without comment to hear a case involving New York Times reporter James Risen. It concerned his unwillingness to testify before a grand jury under subpoena and reveal a confidential source of information in his book State of War on the secret U.S. campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. The case will now go back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has already ordered him to testify. He says he will instead go to jail, if necessary.
That's the bad news, right? Really bad news! The Supremes, the highest court in the land, refused to protect a reporter protecting a source at a moment when the Obama administration is in the midst of a wide-ranging crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers of all sorts (and those in the media considered to be aiding and abetting them). Actually, in a world in which Congress has not yet managed to pass a federal shield law that would protect reporters, it turns out that that's actually the good news -- or so at least various media commentators say. Follow the logic here (and it is logic of a sort). Right now the Richmond, Virginia-based Appeals court decision applies only to courts in states under its jurisdiction. Had the Supremes agreed to take on the case, given their conservative and generally government-friendly bent on matters of executive power and what passes for national security, they would likely have ruled against Risen and that ruling would have applied nationally.
So, phew! Their rejection was a "blessing" (in disguise). The only harm they did, after all, was to confirm the atmospherics of a moment in which the Obama administration has been eager to shut down the leaking of unauthorized government information in a big way -- oh yes, and drive another modest nail into the coffin of a free-to-report-what-our-government-actually-does media. That's the minimal, not the maximal damage claim; so say various relieved commentators. As for Risen, he now has to depend on the kindness of strangers, of in fact Attorney General Eric Holder, who may briefly declare a truce in the administration's "war on the press" and not jail him.
Best news we've had in a while! And should Congress pass that shield law (even if it leaves national security out), uncork the champagne! And we'll all toast the Supreme Court and the attorney general and the president and his top officials for their grace under pressure. Or rather, hold on just a sec there. Maybe that isn't quite the classic American way of preserving our freedoms -- i.e, allowing our government free rein to preserve them for us, if its officials happen to be in the mood. In fact, as State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren suggests, we may be entering a grim new era when it comes to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Tom
What We've Lost Since 9/11 Taking Down the First Amendment in Post-Constitutional America By Peter Van Buren
America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.
In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king's abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government's power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas -- enshrined in the Bill of Rights -- are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people's government.
Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.
The Powers of a Police State Denied
America in its pre-constitutional days may seem eerily familiar even to casual readers of current events. We lived then under the control of a king. (Think now: the imperial presidency.) That king was a powerful, unitary executive who ruled at a distance. His goal was simple: to use his power over "his" American colonies to draw the maximum financial gain while suppressing any dissent that might endanger his control.
In those years, protest was dangerous. Speech could indeed make you the enemy of the government. Journalism could be a crime if you didn't write in support of those in power. A citizen needed to watch what he said, for there were spies everywhere, including fellow colonists hoping for a few crumbs from the king's table. Laws could be brutal and punishments swift as well as extra-judicial. In extreme cases, troops shot down those simply assembling to speak out.
Among the many offenses against liberty in pre-constitutional America, one pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king's men used "writs of assistance" that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion of wrongdoing. American privacy was violated and property ransacked, often simply as a warning of the king's power. Some colonist was then undoubtedly the first American to mutter, "But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?" He soon learned that when a population is categorically treated as a potential enemy, everyone has something to hide if the government claims they do.
The Stamp Act and the flood of kingly offenses that followed created in those who founded the United States a profound suspicion of what an unchecked government could do, and a sense that power and freedom are not likely to coexist comfortably in a democracy. A balancing mechanism was required. In addition to the body of the Constitution outlining what the new nation's government could do, needed was an accounting of what it could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.
The Bill's preamble explained the matter this way: "...in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the government's] powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added." Thomas Jefferson commented separately, "[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth."
In other words, the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that the new government would not replicate the abuses of power of the old one. Each amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. Their purpose collectively was to lay out what the government could never take away. Knowing first-hand the dangers of a police state and unchecked power, those who wrote the Constitution wanted to be clear: never again.