The House of Representatives last week condemned the unauthorized disclosure of classified information concerning a government program to track terrorist financing that was reported in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets on June 23.
The June 29 resolution, approved 227-183, included a veiled rebuke to the press, stating that the House “expects the cooperation of all news media organizations in protecting the lives of Americans … by not disclosing classified intelligence programs such as the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program.”
The House debate on the resolution was none too edifying.
Rep. Barney Frank pointed out that the resolution contained a number of factual errors, including its assertion that “In 1998, disclosure of classified information regarding efforts to monitor the communication of Osama bin Laden eliminated a valuable source of intelligence information on al Qaeda’s activities.”
Rep. Frank showed that this allegation, referring to a supposed leak that was published in the Washington Times, has been conclusively refuted. But to no avail. Under the uncompromising rules adopted by the Republican leadership, no amendments were permitted. As a result, it was not possible to correct errors in the House resolution or to clarify matters of principle.
Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus on the outer limits of the debate.
On the one hand, all parties (other than a few provocateurs on the political right) agree that freedom of the press means that the press must be free to publish more than just what government officials authorize them to publish. On the other hand, there is universal agreement even among the media that certain types of information should not be published in the interests of national security.
What remains in dispute is whether information on programs such as warrantless domestic surveillance or terrorist finance tracking falls in the proscribed category.
The campaign to criminalize publication of classified information was reviewed by Scott Sherman in “Chilling the Press,” The Nation, July 17.
A ringing defense of the disclosure of the terrorist finance tracking program was offered in a June 28 editorial in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune that was syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service. See “Secret U.S. program deserves scrutiny.”