“Invoked to Abrogate:” National Security and the Press in America

Former whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg at the Los Angeles courthouse, 1973; former colleague Anthony Russo and wife Patricia Ellsberg to his right. (Courtesy AP photos)

“The public should not know about these programs. The public should not have a say in these programs and, for God’s sake, the press had better not learn about these programs or we will destroy you.”

These are the words of Edward Snowden from his interview with The Guardian on July 17, 2014. They were spoken not in reference to his own experience with whistle blowing, but in reference to the government’s harassment and prosecution of former NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake after he exposed agency malpractice in 2006. Drake had turned to journalists only after his attempts to use internal oversight mechanisms failed. In 2007, the FBI raided his home and he was subjected to extensive questioning and threatened with life imprisonment. Drake’s experience exposes a frightening psychology that exists within the National Security apparatus of the United States Government. It is a psychology that is antithetical to democracy and reflects the conflict between national security and freedom of the press to report on government policies and practices pertaining to national security.

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2014 “World Free Press Index” saw the United States drop 13 places to 46th among all sovereign countries. The accompanying report cited the cases of Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden as “warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.” Furthermore, the United States remains an outlier among developed nations for not having a “shield law” to allow journalists to protect their sources especially when they are within the US Government. The need for such a law was made glaringly evident when the CIA seized and destroyed phone records belonging to the Associated Press to identify sources used by the news agency.

A protected free press can only strengthen the United State’s diplomatic position in the community of nations. So long as the United States imprisons, subpoenas and threatens journalists, the State Department has no leg to stand on when criticizing the suppression of journalists in other countries. In January of 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech that enshrined freedom of expression, among others, as seminal to United States diplomacy. Clinton remarked: “Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century.” Yet, this sentiment does not reflect the actions of the US government considering the mass surveillances practices as well as legal actions taken against American journalists and whistleblowers.

Former whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg at the Los Angeles courthouse, 1973; former colleague Anthony Russo and wife Patricia Ellsberg to his right. (Courtesy AP photos)
Former whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg at the Los Angeles courthouse, 1973; former colleague Anthony Russo and wife Patricia Ellsberg to his right. (Courtesy AP photos)

In 1971, the executive branch of the United States attempted to block The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, brought to light by Daniel Ellsberg, on the grounds that doing so violated the Espionage Act. The New York Times Company brought the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the newspaper. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote the following words in his opinion:

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. (…) The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security.

There is no reason for these words to not hold true 43 years after their writing.

The views expressed by these authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Alessandro Sassoon

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon earned a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California on a Trustee (full tuition, merit) scholarship. In 2012, he researched Arctic politics and ecological security in Sweden, Finland and Russia. His particular interest is in the relationship between climate science and policy making. Additionally, in 2013, he researched post-genocide democratization challenges in Rwanda and presented the findings at the University of Minnesota. As a student, he served as Glimpse from the Globe’s Media and Content Manager and was a member of the USC Varsity Sailing Team for 3 years. Alessandro is currently serving a Princeton in Asia Fellowship to work as a journalist for The Phnom Penh Post. He can be followed on Twitter @alemzs.