May 16, 2010

“The People Have A Right To Know”

That expression, spawned by a bunch of reporters whose goals are less about keeping “the people” informed and more about selling their most lucrative product (advertising space, whether print, broadcast or Internet) and/or pressing a political agenda and making a name for themselves, is pure, unadulterated bullsh-t.

The First Amendment does not, whatever some irresponsible scumbag with press credentials might insist, contain text to the effect that “the people have a right to know”.

I say irresponsible because the reporting of certain events or procedures can pose threats to human life, the protection of the people or the enforcement of the law, vital intelligence or military strategies or the simplification, by terrorists or criminals, of finding their way around obstacles to the commission of their illicit operations.

Yet there are reporters and editors who could care less about the cost of irresponsible reporting.

Remember the New York Times not long ago and repetitively where their reporting of secret counter-terrorist electronic surveillance Ops endangered those government intelligence operations, for example? And how that treasonous lefty propagandist pea-brain turd Bill Keller actually had the pelotas to defend the practice?

Jeff Kamen has an excellent OpEd on responsible reporting, as well as the responsible conduct of the police and other public protection agencies in informing members of the media about their ongoing activities, in today’s Washington Times.

The all-but-traitorous leaking and reporting of police tactics during the hunt for the Times Square bomber nearly let him escape and may have allowed others to do just that. The damaging relationship between cops and reporters in this case reminded me of a moment in my own journalistic career when I somehow managed to keep my mouth shut and not broadcast a juicy exclusive that could have had the unintended consequence of encouraging terrorist attacks on Americans. No question that it was easier to do the right thing in the absence of competitive pressures, which fueled the bad press behavior over the intense 53 hours of the manhunt in New York City and Connecticut last week.

Some years back, while reporting on a major news event overseas, I stumbled upon the fact that the nearest American military base was being guarded by U.S. soldiers with empty guns. They had been neutered by their captain, a female officer who decided on that bizarre and utterly inappropriate form of group punishment after one of her troopers had accidentally fired his duty weapon. Fortunately, his mistake had caused neither bodily harm nor property damage. But his boss decided to teach all of her “boys” a lesson by taking their bullets from them, despite the fact that the same soldiers were responsible for defending the compound from attacks by terrorists and ordinary criminals.

Next day, I had a previously scheduled interview with the base commander, a rising star in the U.S. high command. Privately, I told him about his military police without bullets who were still patrolling the base perimeter. His face turned beet red and his normally booming voice sounded tight and pained: “What are you going to do with the story?” I told him that since I could not figure out a way to tell it without creating an elevated risk of terrorist attack on his troopers and their families, there would be no story. The general immediately checked the facts and after confirming them, ordered the captain shipped back to the U.S. for a lot more leadership training.

That is what’s known as being responsible, where the Fourth Estate is concerned. The same rules should be applied to Law Enforcement and other government entities involved in an ongoing situation that would be better served observing the old “Loose Lips Sink Ships” adage.

In the Times Square bomber case, serious retraining is required for the federal and local anonymous law enforcement sources who fed true, real-time, tactical information to journalists who then broadcast the intel to everyone - including the suspect, who was listening to the radio as he fled. Will we ever really know if the terrorist had local supporters beyond the under-the-table bankers? The same news reports about the cops figuring out who bought the bomb car and then alerting the public to the stakeouts at the suspect’s two residences could easily have sent any co-conspirator into hiding and then, out of the country.

As a card-carrying member of the press for more than 30 years with many good friends in law enforcement as well, it is painful to write critical words about my own community. But what happened in the press-law enforcement relationship during the hunt for the Times Square bomber signals even bigger trouble ahead for the public, which depends on cops and reporters to be responsible and capable of thinking past the excited moment and their own self-interest. Why did the cops leak so fully and so foolishly? A continuing tension and competitive drive between federal and local agencies for credit and favor with the press is the simple, though pathetic answer.

Had alleged Times Square Bomber Faisal Shahzad been better trained in the tradecraft of terrorism, that information might easily have led him to completely escape the multilayered dragnet that had his name on it. I’m not going to write here what steps he could have taken and gotten away, but count on some other journalist to gleefully pour forth a prescription for more effective escapes by terrorists. (Not because that writer sympathizes with terrorists - he would be shocked at the assertion - but because there is loose in the land of the free and the home of the brave the catastrophically stupid notion that all information is essentially morally neutral and that there is a right to know all things at anytime - no matter whose life it might cost, or who might escape prosecution and be able to strike again.)

Like it or not, in the digital universe in which we all live these days, even the smallest newspaper and radio station is read or heard around the world via their websites, making the press the real-time-look-down intelligence service of anyone being hunted by law enforcement. That makes it essential for law enforcement - no matter how hungry for credit in the press they might be - not to tell reporters their next move.

After the capture is time enough to tell it all. There is no constitutional guarantee of live access to tactical information. No one outside the intel-law enforcement community has a legitimate need to know.


by @ 4:41 pm. Filed under The Mainstream Media
Trackback URL for this post:

2 Responses to ““The People Have A Right To Know””

  1. BB-Idaho Says:

    “There is no constitutional guarantee of live access to tactical information.” Problematic, given the 1st Amendment:
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”

  2. Seth Says:

    BB –

    The key phrase there is constitutional guarantee. While the Fourth Estate is guaranteed the right to report what they learn, the government, in the interest of protecting our troops, the secrets of our military capabilities, hardware and technology, is not compelled to share said secrets with them — sure, there’s the freedom of information act, but face it: the gov’t is well within their authority to refuse to share information whose disclosure would prove detrimental to their ability “to protect and defend us against all enemies, foreign and domestic”.

    That’s why most of the time, when we read in the NYT or any other publication that plays footloose and fancy free with treason, there is usually a source who must remain anonymous because he/she is not authorized to release the information in question.

    Once upon a time, such inside sources were called “traitors”, but the political left has changed those people’s status to “responsible citizen” — or — faithful Party member.