The significance of this article from today's New York Times cannot be overstated. In essence, while the President sits in the White House undisturbed after proudly announcing that he has been breaking the law and will continue to do so, his slavish political appointees at the Justice Department are using the mammoth law enforcement powers of the federal government to find and criminally prosecute those who brought this illegal conduct to light:
Federal agents have interviewed officials at several of the country's law enforcement and national security agencies in a rapidly expanding criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a New York Times article published in December that disclosed the existence of a highly classified domestic eavesdropping program, according to government officials.
The investigation, which appears to cover the case from 2004, when the newspaper began reporting the story, is being closely coordinated with criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department, the officials said. People who have been interviewed and others in the government who have been briefed on the interviews said the investigation seemed to lay the groundwork for a grand jury inquiry that could lead to criminal charges.
Alberto Gonzales last week spent 8 hours testifying before Congress, during which he made clear that he considers George Bush to be his "client." Isn't it plainly inappropriate for Gonzales to be making decisions regarding who should be prosecuted for having exposed his "client's" wrongdoing to the public?
Beyond that, consider the effects of these threats on other people who may be tempted to come forward and expose other serious wrongdoing on the part of the Administration. They hear that the Justice Department is "laying the groundwork for a grand jury inquiry that could lead to criminal charges" -- might that have an effect of intimidation against anyone considering blowing the whistle on other forms of serious misconduct by the Bush Administration?
And it isn't just potential whistle-blowers whom they are attempting to intimidate, but journalists as well:
At the same time, conservatives have attacked the disclosure of classified information as a illegal act, demanding a vigorous investigative effort to find and prosecute whoever disclosed classified information.
An upcoming article in Commentary magazine suggests that the newspaper might be prosecuted for violations of the Espionage Act and said, "What The New York Times has done is nothing less than to compromise the centerpiece of our defensive efforts in the war on terrorism."
So now we're a country which allows its leaders to flagrantly violate the law -- even cheering them on as they do it -- and we imprison the journalists who report that illegal behavior to the public. That sounds like a lot of things. The United States isn't one of them.
The Administration has been making threatening noises like this all week:
[CIA Director Porter] Goss, speaking at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Feb. 2, said: "It is my aim, and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information. I believe the safety of this nation and the people this country deserve nothing less."
Those were the comments about which Dick Cheney remarked on right-wing radio that, while he agreed with them, he thought they were "rather restrained." If Goss' statement that there should be a criminal investigation into the leakers and journalists is too "restrained," what more aggressive measures would Cheney like to see be taken against them?
Whatever one's views are on the NSA scandal, disclosure by The New York Times has accomplished exactly what newspapers are designed to achieve -- ensuring that highly controversial government programs, particularly ones of dubious legality, are subject to public debate and not concealed by the Government. Thomas Jefferson long ago warned us:
"Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions."
It has long been clear that the Times disclosed only that information necessary to enable such public discussion without disclosing any operational details and without even arguably jeopardizing national security. Indeed, one of the most frivolous claims we've heard from the Bush Administration and its followers is that national security was damaged by the Times' disclosure that the Administration eavesdrops without judicial oversight (rather than with it), and that this disclosure somehow helped Al Qaeda.
For that reason, this flamboyant use of the forces of criminal prosecution to threaten whistle-blowers and intimidate journalists are nothing more than the naked tactics of street thugs and authoritarian juntas. There is much speculation over whether other eavesdropping programs exist, including domestic eavesdropping programs, as well as whether other lawless programs have been authorized based on the Administration's theories that it has the right to wield war powers against American citizens on American soil.
Our hope for finding out about the existence of other illegality depends upon the willingness of whistle blowers to come forward and journalists to investigate and report such misconduct. That is precisely why the Administration is so aggressively seeking to attack and silence those two groups, and it is also why the significance and danger of those attempts really can't be overstated.