The revelations that the Bush Administration has engaged in the secret jailing and torture of people in gulag-like conditions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere while pursuing the warrantless wiretapping of Americans at home should send shivers down the spines of all who value our constitutionally protected civil liberties. Yet although the institutions that have reported on these chilling developments clearly deserve our gratitude, the manner in which they have done so nevertheless inspires suspicion and unease.
The New York Times held its story on domestic spying for more than a year and published it only when it became apparent that it would appear in a book by its reporter James Risen. Executive editor Bill Keller refuses to discuss his decision to delay publication, or to confirm reports that top Times editors were summoned to (and possibly threatened by) the White House. In light of the Justice Department’s investigation into the identity of the leaker responsible for the story, this may be an understandable position. But Keller’s “woefully inadequate” response to twenty-eight questions from the Times public editor about the case closes the much ballyhooed post-Jayson Blair era of openness and transparency at the country’s most influential newspaper. Once again, Times editors are telling us that they know what we plebes need to know, and they’ll thank us to take it and like it if we know what’s good for us.
In the case of the Washington Post‘s scoop on secret CIA prisons at old gulag sites, its editors agreed to redact the names of two of the countries involved. The Post article explained that this was “at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.” Like Keller, Post executive editor Len Downie refuses to discuss his reasoning or to address the issue of White House meetings or threats, and like Keller’s, his paper faces a Justice Department investigation of the leak.
But the Post‘s argument for withholding is weaker–the information in question was widely available elsewhere. Independently, Human Rights Watch had scoured the flight logs of airports used by the CIA for its “rendition” flights, which pointed to Poland and Romania as the sites of the secret prisons. HRW published the nations’ names on its website and they appeared in publications all over the world virtually simultaneously with the Post story.
This game took an even odder twist when, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to depart for these very nations a few weeks later, ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross discovered that the CIA appeared to be rolling up the prisons and moving the prisoners to new locations somewhere in the North African desert. This maneuver allowed Rice to deny their existence with slightly more attention to veracity than is usual for top Bush officials.