My goodness, but wasn’t it just yesterday we were busy debating right-wing ideologues about how “absolute” the First Amendment is? How worried we were about imposing “speech codes” on frat boys who hurled racist invective and published posters full of equal-opportunity insult? Was it really so very long ago that we of the politically correct groupthink were being denounced for questioning the Dartmouth Review for quoting Hitler on its masthead? Of course, for all the cries of “absolute” free speech and press, the First Amendment is not, never has been, without boundary. Perjury, conspiracy, libel laws–these are all limits, as is the need for national security, particularly in wartime. Nevertheless, I had thought of freedom of speech and the press as such secure tenets of the American enterprise that we would always adhere to them in principle, even if the balancing of knowledge and privacy, speech and harm, would be a matter of eternal contention.
These days, however, I get the sense that a rather solid bloc of the current Administration would rather chuck it all, in favor of the cold efficiency of what Vladimir Putin so enthusiastically urges for Russia, to wit, a “dictatorship of law.” I hadn’t a clue as to what that term might mean until I started pondering the brouhaha, much more publicized in Britain than here, about a memo detailing an alleged conversation between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair at the peak of the first American assault on Falluja, in 2004. According to an exclusive in Britain’s Daily Mirror, Bush wanted to bomb the Qatar headquarters of Al Jazeera, but Blair dissuaded him. The British Attorney General has brought charges against two government employees implicated in the leak of the memo and after the story ran in the Mirror, the government invoked Section Five of the Official Secrets Act, promising to prosecute any journalist who published its contents. This attracted even more attention–not simply because it implied that there was truth to the story but because targeting the media is an unprecedented use of the Official Secrets Act.
For now, I don’t want to join the speculation about whether the memo is being suppressed because it’s sensationally true or because it’s sensationally false. Rather, what gets me is a debate on the BBC that I almost slept through. Proper British accents had been droning on about tabloid versus credible sources. What woke me up was the flat mid-Atlantic intonation of a man named Frank Gaffney, an American policy analyst who jumped right in to defend bombing the media: He called Al Jazeera an “instrument of enemy propaganda” that was “actively aiding our foes.” It was, he insisted, “appropriate to talk about what you do to neutralize it.” Al Jazeera was “squarely in the target” and “fair game.”
Gaffney, it turns out, has been urging this course for a while now. In 2003 he published a piece on the Fox News website urging that the United States take “comprehensive action against Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya” for their “incessant drumbeat of Muslim victimization, anti-Western vituperation and approval for acts of violence.” He counseled that they be “taken off the air, one way or another,” that it was “imperative that enemy media be taken down.” Those “who will decry this as censorship,” he wrote, “should be reminded of President Bush’s injunction shortly after we were attacked…. In the War on Terror, you are either with us or with the terrorists.”