The assault on a free press …should be recognized for what it is,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich last July, “another desperate ploy by officials trying to hide their own lethal mistakes in the shadows.

While the Bush Administration’s assault on free, independent and aggressive media has been unparalleled, US government attempts to suppress information are not new. I was reminded of that essential fact this weekend while reading an obituary of Ronald Hilton, an influential scholar on Latin America who played a central role in The Nation‘s expose of CIA preparations for the Bay of Pigs.

Obituaries have many purposes. They can celebrate a person’s work, accomplishments and contributions. And this one did–noting that Hilton was a courageous man and scholar. But obituaries also serve to set the record straight–and in this case, to issue a mea culpa for Times editors ( living and dead) who regret the paper’s decision to accede to Kennedy Administration requests to delay publication (on national security grounds) of its article about the impending, disastrous CIA attack. (There have been other mea culpas: Last year, in an editorial, the Times wrote that “it seems in hindsight that the editors were over-cautious” by not printing what they knew about the invasion.)

The memory of that journalistic failure continues to play a role at the Times. For example, when the Administration vituperatively attacked the paper last year–even threatening legal action–for publishing an important investigative article on banking records and terrorism, executive editor Bill Keller’s open letter explaining the decision to publish made explicit reference to the Times‘s handling of the Bay of Pigs story. “Our biggest failures,” Keller wrote, “have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After the Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco.”

What is little known is the role The Nation and Ronald Hilton–“a fiercely independent and intellectually tireless scholar,” as the Times obituary rightly describes him –played in this story. In November 1960, The Nation published the first article on preparations being made for what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Carey McWilliams, The Nation‘s editor at the time, “Ronald Hilton, director of Stanford University’s Institute of Hispanic-American Studies had just returned from Guatemala with reports that it was common knowledge –indeed, it had been reported in La Hora, a leading newspaper, on October 30–that the CIA was training a guerrilla force at a secret base for an early invasion of Cuba.” McWilliams promptly got in touch with Hilton, who confirmed details, and agreed that he could be quoted. The magazine then published an article setting forth the facts Hilton had given it, including the location of the base near the mountain town of Retalhulea. If the reports were true, McWilliams wrote, “then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the administration to abandon this dangerous and hare-brained project.” In the meantime, he added, the facts should be checked out immediately “by all US news media with correspondents in Guatemala.” Although a special press release was prepared–to which copies of the article were attached–the wire services ignored the story and only one or two papers mentioned it.

However, The Nation‘s article was then called to the attention of a New York Times editor, who assigned Times reporter Paul Kennedy to do a story. Kennedy filed an article in January 1961 covering similar ground to The Nation‘s. But it was the Tad Szulc article in the Times–which ran only a week before the invasion in April 1961–that Kennedy called the Times‘s publisher about. The New York Times yielded to the President’s demand that the story be reduced in prominence and detail.

According to McWilliams’s memoirs (and the Columbia University forum on “The Press and the Bay of Pigs” of fall 1967), a week or so after the Bay of Pigs fiasco a group of press executives met with President Kennedy at the White House. “At this session,” McWilliams recounts, “the President complained of premature disclosure of security information in the press and cited Paul Kennedy’s story in the New York Times as a case in point. The New York Times‘ Turner Catledge then reminded Kennedy that reports about the base had previously appeared in the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora and The Nation.”

The President reportedly turned to Catledge and said, “If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” More than a year later, Kennedy told the New York Times‘s Orvil Dryfoos, “I wish you had run everything on Cuba…. I am just sorry you didn’t tell it at the time.”

To his credit, top Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also later said that he wished the Times had run its stories so that the whole catastrophe would have been avoided.

As McWilliams notes, “Kennedy was correct: timely disclosure of the facts might have prevented what was truly a ‘colossal mistake’.”

It is thanks to Ronald Hilton, an independent and fearless scholar, that The Nation first alerted a country to what was being done, illegally, in its name.

Never has the need for a free and independent press been greater. Never has the need for the media to act as a watchdog on government abuse and wrongdoing–and as an effective counter to still excessive executive power–been greater.