In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That's why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were 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."
Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.
So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.
While this is hardly a classic example of "reporting on troop movements," it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.
So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.
The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.
Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.
Ostensibly, the monitoring is intended to track transfers of money by supposed terrorists. But the program, like many of the administration's other moves to monitor the conversations and business dealings of private individuals, has been implemented in secret, without the subpoenas that are traditionally required for such reviews, and in a manner designed to avoid the sort of independent governmental oversight that is supposed to prevent abuse.
Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else associated with al Qaeda would be naïve enough to think that they could transfer large amounts of money through regular banking channels without being found out. So the revelation of the monitoring could hardly be called a threat to the "war on terror" – at least, not by anyone who knows anything about dealing with terrorist networks.
Yet, President Bush went ballistic about reporting on the monitoring, telling White House reporters, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."
Vice President Cheney was even blunter, saying, "Some of the press, particularly the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."
Bush allies in Congress have even called for the prosecution of the New York Times for revealing to Americans the extent to which they are being spied upon.
So why is the Bush administration so freaked out about a leak regarding a spying program that could not possibly have come as news to any terrorists but that certainly might interest average Americans? And why isn't the president concerned about leaks regarding specific redeployments of troops in the near future?
There's no mystery.
The leak about spying on bank records will feed concerns about the extent that this administration has engaged in spying on citizens. That could be politically damaging.
On the other hand, the leak about planning for troop deployments – coming at a time when the majority of Americans say they want to see a plan for getting the U.S. out of Iraq – eases the political pressure on the president and his Republican allies.
What's the bottom line? The cynical Bush White House has always seen the "war on terror" as a political tool. The president and his allies – heeding the advice of White House political czar Karl Rove – regularly tailor their responses to new developments to benefit their domestic political fortunes while undermining the prospects of their political foes.
Leaks about plans for troop redeployment are fine with the president because they could help him and his congressional allies politically.
Leaks about the administration spying on citizens, on the other hand, are "disgraceful" because they could cause the president and his Republicans acolytes political harm.