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From Jefferson to Assange
Posted on Dec 8, 2010
All you need to know about Julian Assange’s value as a crusading journalist is that The New York Times and most of the world’s other leading newspapers have led daily with important news stories based on his WikiLeaks releases. All you need to know about the collapse of traditional support for the constitutional protection of a free press is that Dianne Feinstein, the centrist Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for Assange “to be vigorously prosecuted for espionage.”
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Feinstein represents precisely the government that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said, in defense of unfettered freedom of the press, “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In the 1787 letter in which he wrote those words, Jefferson was reflecting the deep wisdom of a political leader who often had been excoriated by a vicious press that would make the anarchist-inflected comments of an Assange seem mild in comparison. More than 35 years later, after having suffered many more vitriolic press attacks, Jefferson reiterated his belief in a free press, in all its vagaries, as the foundation of a democracy. In an 1823 letter to Lafayette, Jefferson warned: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted to be freely expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
It is precisely that agitation that so alarms Feinstein, for the inconvenient truths she has concealed in her Senate role would have indeed shocked many of those who voted for her. She knew in real time that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, yet she voted to send young Americans to kill and be killed based on what she knew to be lies. It is her duplicity, along with the leaders of both political parties, that now stands exposed by the WikiLeaks documents.
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The pretend patriots who use the national security argument to gut what remains of our most important security asset—our constitutional guarantees of a truly free press—are just what President George Washington feared when in his farewell address he warned “against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the Impostures of pretended patriotism. …”
The pretended patriotism of Feinstein, the first Democrat to co-sponsor the bill extending the U.S. Patriot Act, represents the death of the Democratic Party as a protector of our freedoms. As a California resident, I will not vote for her again, no matter how dastardly a right-wing Republican opponent she might face. There is no lesser evil to be found in one who would so cavalierly imprison practitioners of a free press.
That is the issue here, pure and simple. It is unconscionable to target Assange for publishing documents on the Internet that mainstream media outlets have attested had legitimate news value. As in the historic case in which Daniel Ellsberg gave The New York Times the Pentagon Papers exposé of the official lies justifying the Vietnam War, Assange is acting as the reporter here, and thus his activities must be shielded by the First Amendment’s guarantee of journalistic freedom.
Actually Ellsberg’s position, as morally strong as it was, was weaker than that of Assange, in that the former Marine and top Pentagon adviser was working at the government-funded Rand Corp., where he had agreed to rules about the handling of classified information, including the Pentagon Papers. Assange operates under no such restraints and is an even clearer example of the journalist who ferrets out news and attempts to report it. He had no special clearance that provided him access, and what he did was no different from what the editors of The New York Times did in publishing news that was fit to print.
It is outrageous for any journalist, or respecter of what every American president has claimed is our inalienable, God-given right to a free press, not to join in Assange’s defense on this issue, as distinct from what increasingly appear to be trumped-up charges that led to his voluntary arrest on Tuesday in London in a case involving his personal behavior. Abandon Assange and you abandon the bedrock of our republic: the public’s right to know.
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