From Where I Stand

Witch hunts enough to go around

by Joan Chittister, OSB

National Catholic Reporter Vol. 4, No. 5
May 5, 2006

Here's a story we might need to worry about a bit. In 1918 during World War I, The New York Times reports, 79 Montanans were convicted of sedition for speaking out "in ways deemed critical of the United States."

Forty-one of them got prison terms of one to 20 years and were fined from $200 to $20,000. In one case, 12 children of one family were put up for adoption after the father went to prison and the family farm failed. One of these children, now 90, is still alive. She will be present for the ceremony in which the present governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, pardons these German-Americans, one of whom went to jail for saying that the food regulations put in place during the war were a "big joke."

Sedition. Convictions. Jail sentences. Pardons for being critical of government policies. Impossible? Don't be too sure. It looks as if we could launch a few witch hunts ourselves these days.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times and Dana Priest of The Washington Post were just awarded journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for their stories on our secret torture chambers in Eastern European countries and domestic spying on U.S. citizens.

As I understand it, Bill Bennett, former secretary of education, would like, on the other hand, to put these three reporters in jail.

Bennett was clear in his condemnation of that kind of journalism. He said that the reporters "took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others that they not release it."

Nothing to be doubted here. Bennett calls these journalists traitors. He says they ought to be in prison rather than picking up prizes.

"I don't think what they did was worthy of an award," he said. "I think what they did was worthy of jail. These people who reveal our secrets, who hurt our war effort, who hurt the efforts of our CIA, who hurt efforts of the president's people -- they shouldn't be given awards for this. They should be looked into (through) the Espionage Act."

He did not, however, say anything about the president's "selective declassification" -- leak, in common parlance -- of classified material for political reasons. To bolster his defense of the invasion of Iraq, the reason for which was beginning to unravel, Bush, we know now, had aides leak what to that point had been classified but unsubstantiated material. So, we have to assume that if Bennett wants reporters in jail for publishing material that "hurt our war effort, hurt the efforts of our CIA, hurt efforts of the president's people," he must mean the president, too.

Who, in fact, endangers the country more: A president by lying about the certain need for pre-emptive war, domestic spying or outsourced torture sites or journalists by telling the truth about the corner-cutting on the Constitution?

After all, not only was classified material "leaked" by the president -- former chief of staff to the vice president Lewis Libby's word, not mine -- it was suspect. Knowingly suspect.

The president's own intelligence community said it could not be verified. But the president used it anyway to justify what could not be justified. It was error upon error -- or treason upon treason -- if we apply Mr. Bennett's value system broadly. And since Bill Bennett has become the "Value Czar" of the country, probably we should.

But that's the obvious -- and almost irrelevant -- part of the situation. The real question is what, if anything, will be left of the checks and balance structure of the republic if we begin to jail reporters for telling us what we need to know to preserve the Constitution and the character of the country.

Ironically enough, the very week the Pulitzer Prize was awarded, Mark Felt appeared on national TV to discuss his guiding role as "Deep Throat" in exposing the Watergate cover-up and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon.

Question: Should Bernstein and Woodward have gone to jail rather than Chuck Colson, Gordon Liddy, and Bob Haldeman, who planned the robbery and, worse, the cover-up by the Oval Office?

Think carefully here. The whole future of the country may be at stake.

What will happen to this democracy's commitment to the Fourth Estate, that institution of protected public voice that emerged out of the French Revolution to act as a brake on the human tendency to autocratic pretensions even in republics? If the media are denied the right to uncover and publish acts of government wrongdoing, what will happen to democracy itself?

If we begin to jail journalists for telling us what we have a right -- a need -- to know about the way any given administration is frittering away the Constitution, the nation's integrity will at best be the stuff of history. We will be one more banana republic governed by successive gangs of opportunists, thugs and despots.

If journalists are denied the right to investigate those who do not investigate themselves, how is this country to have any hope of stopping corruption in its tracks, of really being the country we have always thought ourselves to be?

From where I stand, when it becomes traitorous for an American reporter to let Americans know about torture being done in their name or the domestic spying to which their neighbors are being subjected, we won't need newspapers anyway. Collections of fairy tales will do. That, it seems, is a lot of what we?re getting right now anyway -- and that goes for what they claim are our values.

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.