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A July Fourth Call to Arms

By Brent Budowsky
July 3, 2006

Editor's Note: Urged on by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, right-wing pundits, politicians and radio talk-show hosts are denouncing -- and trying to intimidate -- the New York Times and other mainstream news organizations that have begun to show some independence in reporting about the "war on terror."

Hurling charges of "treason" and threatening prosecution of editors, this right-wing assault appears to have two key goals: first, to reestablish Bush's monopoly over which secrets can be released and which ones can't, and second, to rile up the Republican base for the congressional elections in November.

In this guest essay, political analyst Brent Budowsky criticizes this assault on independent journalism as an affront to the democratic vision of the Founders, who -- more than two centuries ago -- recognized that the patriotic role of a free press was to keep the American people as fully informed as possible:

As America celebrates July Fourth -- honoring Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers who committed treason against tyranny and defeated an empire of kings with the power of freedom and truth -- we are reminded again of the preeminent importance of the First Amendment to a nation governed by the informed consent of a democratic people.

Had the New York Times and others in the profession now accused of treason or violations of the Espionage Act not reported the facts in their stories, on fundamental matters involving our freedom and security, the American people would have been deprived of their right to give their informed consent.

The courts would have been deprived of their constitutional duty to judge whether laws are being faithfully executed. The Congress would have been deprived of its constitutional duty and its share of responsibility in the policies of waging war, the oversight of government actions, and the protection of our liberties.

What is under attack, with these partisan charges of treason, is not some abstract notion of "the public's right to know" but the core of the matter of the American system of government. Freedom of the press was not created by the Founding Fathers for the convenience of either the politicians or the press, it was created as a guarantor and protector of an informed citizenry, without which we have no democracy.

Freedom of the press was created as a Fourth Estate, a primary check and balance to a free nation whose governance is carefully balanced between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, designed to limit each other's power to protect the common good of America.

When Thomas Paine wrote that the sun never shined on a cause as great as ours, that cause was not the monarchy of King George where those who knocked on doors at night could write their own search warrants. It is no coincidence that after freedom had triumphed in the new world, Paine and others took the cause to France and continental Europe, followed generations later by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of Paine's successors over not only the Soviet Politburo's crimes but their agents of lies from Pravda to Radio Moscow.

I make no brief for contemporary American media, and have harshly criticized in public and private the insiderism in which far too many pundits become courtiers of power, in which far too many "journalists" become mini-conglomerates trading off their historic role of the courageous search for truth for endless searches for cable TV contracts and lucrative book deals. And I have predicted and worked for a new courage and new media that is emerging, through trial and error, to challenge and, I predict, ultimately supplant the more fossilized and corrupted of the older insider media, with its corporate cheapening of news and "entertainment."

So: I make no brief for conventional media. How ironic that the New York Times, which for so many months allowed its front page to be used as an agent of propaganda to drive our nation to war, and which withheld the NSA wiretapping story for a year, preventing the American people from knowing the truth prior to voting in our last presidential campaign, is now accused of being unpatriotic by the triumphant ideologues who got the war they so hungered for, and won their election without the American people voting with fully informed consent because of important news withheld.

And I make no brief for Democrats. Is there anyone not on the payroll of the party who believes that the collective leadership of the Democratic Party has shown courage, clarity or coherence on the great controversies of our age?

Reasonable people can disagree and debate whether the New York Times should have published its stories about eavesdropping on Americans without court order. Patriots can stand on both sides of the divide about whether it was wise or appropriate to publish stories about alleged secret prisons. Honorable Americans can take different sides about whether it was proper to publish news about monitoring of terrorist financing.

But words like treason? Traitors? Charges that the New York Times wants to impede the war on terrorism?

Having dealt with much classified information in my days of government service, I can attest: Sometimes information is classified to cover up wrongs, hide blunders, protect political convenience. Other times information is classified to protect legitimate secrets or help defeat dangerous enemies.

Every day in every newsroom these matters are debated endlessly, and decisions are made, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but the charge of treason is different, the sign of a darker impulse in a politics increasingly dominated by demeaning tactics that violate the cardinal rules of the legacy left to us by the greatest collection of minds who ever sat together on earth, in 1776, and 1789.

We have a President who claims the inherent, presumptive power to abrogate provisions of the Constitution and throw aside the Bill of Rights, a monarchical power he literally asserts with a doctrine championed by our current Attorney General.

Those who do not agree, are charged with treason, and threatened with prison. We have a President who claims more than 700 times that he can break the very laws he signs, and those who challenge this are called traitors, and threatened with retribution. We have an Attorney General who believes the Geneva Convention, championed by virtually all in the military who our President falsely claims he always heeds, is some quant relic of the past, and those who reveal the truth of abuses are called unpatriotic, enemies of the state, and threatened with investigation.

Our answer to 9/11 must be to unite our people to kill the terrorists who genuinely threaten us, not to divide our country with charges of treason, not to create a hidden secret regime of secret prisons, secret defendants, secret
courts, secret trials, secret spying on our fellow Americans, secret intrusions on personal freedom, secret policies by secretive partisans who disrespect the very notion of democratic debate, destroy the very institutions of checks
and balances, and demean and threaten those who dissent and even those who hold majority views in a nation that demonstrates its strong disapproval, in every poll.

Some of these secrets are valid, some not, but taken together these aggressive attacks against time-honored practices and time-honored values are a dangerous departure from our democratic tradition.

These deviations from our democracy create far more divisions and dangers than a foreign enemy that will never defeat us, but is used as pretext for treating our neighbors as enemies, fomenting a politics of fear, twisting war from a mission that should unite the nation into an unprecedented weapon of partisanship that abuses the national trust, with charges of treason unbecoming any commander in chief, or any partisan who acts in his name.

Freedom of the press, with all its flaws, protects a freedom that involves three branches of government, not one; gives voice to a politics that includes two parties, not one; informs a citizenry that defends freedom with bravery,
rather than surrendering freedom after appeals to fear.

Freedom of the press, with all the petty corruptions of the old media and Wild West styles of the new, gives voice to an America where many voices are singing, where many opinions are heard, where many truths are told.

Editors, publishers, readers, viewers, citizens of our Republic: our cities may be bombed but our freedoms will never be taken by terrorists, they can only be surrendered by ourselves.

It is time to man the barricades of democracy in defense of all three branches of government and the Fourth Estate, in the defense of the 200-year-old notion that we are indeed in this together, that we share a democracy of
fellow patriots where the voices that charge treason are not the voices of true Americanism, and that Thomas Paine's greatest sun that ever shined on earth is now ours to preserve, protect and defend in a nation of fellow patriots on a common mission, based on courageous search for truth defended by courageous heroism in war.

God Bless America. Happy Fourth of July.


Brent Budowsky was an aide to U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen on intelligence issues, and served as Legislative Director to Rep. Bill Alexander when he was Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Leadership. Budowsky can be reached at brentbbi@webtv.net .


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