Public has to make the call

THE events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a watershed in this nation’s history, but who would have suspected that they also would mark the beginning of an extraordinary era in American journalism?

Thursday’s story in USA Today on how the National Security Agency, our most secretive spy operation, has been paying three of the country’s biggest phone companies to turn over the record of all their customers’ calls since 9/11, was the latest installment in what has been a historically unprecedented series of newspaper reports documenting what President George W. Bush’s administration is doing in secret to prosecute what it calls “the war on terror.”

Leslie Cauley’s story in USA Today moved dramatically beyond earlier, more fragmentary, reports in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times to document just how the NSA has been collecting what some analysts think is the world’s largest computerized database in which the telephone calling records of all AT&T;, Verizon and BellSouth customers’ calls since 9/11 have been made available to the government for analysis. (The fact that the companies were paid to do this suggests that we’re witnessing the emergence of a new intelligence-industrial complex to take its place alongside the military-industrial one against which Dwight D. Eisenhower fruitlessly warned.)

This report comes on the heels of stories by the Washington Post on how the CIA operates a network of secret prisons in which people are tortured, the New York Times’ documentation of the NSA’s conduct of domestic wiretaps without warrants and the Los Angeles Times’ revelations of how the country’s intelligence agents allowed themselves to be duped and manipulated by an Iraqi defector appropriately codenamed “Curveball.”


Taken together, this sequence of reports amounts to something that American newspapers never before have provided their readers in a time of armed conflict -- as full as possible a contemporaneous account of how this nation’s government is prosecuting its struggles in secret, as well as on the battlefield. More to the point, with midterm elections looming, voters will have a fuller opportunity to decide whether to support candidates who endorse the administration’s use of kidnapping, torture, secret incarceration and warrantless domestic spying or those who object to it.

There are several indications that many -- perhaps a majority of people -- are unbothered by the White House’s recourse to these measures in the unavoidable conflict with terrorists. That’s beside the point, which is that -- to a degree unknown in previous conflicts -- people have been given the opportunity to decide whether or not they are troubled, which is precisely the function of a free press.

It is worth considering, moreover, that only newspapers have the will, resources and venues in which this sort of journalism can be accomplished on readers’ behalf. To an extent too little discussed, the future of the news media is the future of American democracy.

GIVEN how much there is to chew over in the substance of this most recent report -- and in the context other publications’ reporting already has provided -- it’s interesting that so much of the commentary since Thursday has focused almost exclusively on the story’s possible political impact. In part, that’s predictable, because so much of what passes for comment and analysis these days, particularly online, is a wholly owned appendage of one or the other political parties. That’s simply a reflection of how bitterly polarized national politics have become.


More interesting yet is the way in which these commentators’ worldview has slipped unexamined into the currents of the mainstream. Because their own motives are wholly partisan, they assume that everyone else doing journalism is similarly inclined. Thus, USA Today’s Cauley, like her colleagues at other major newspapers, must have written this story out of a desire to injure the Bush administration or frustrate its policies -- in this case, the confirmation of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former head of the NSA, as director of the CIA.

It would be worse than naive not to strongly suspect that reservations about the Air Force general’s nomination may have influenced some of the sources on which USA Today relied for its report. (And it’s worth noting that, once again, the White House does not deny that the story is true, whatever the leakers’ reasons.) Those motives, however, are not necessarily -- or even probably -- USA Today’s. The news and public service value of the paper’s report simply is too obvious to belabor.

A snap poll conducted Thursday night by the Washington Post and ABC News sheds some interesting light on the public’s understanding of these questions. The technical difficulties inherent in conducting a poll in a single night are potentially a source of significant error, and the Post pointed that out. Similarly, a randomly -- rather than scientifically -- selected sample of just 504 yields a margin of error that reaches at least 5%.

Still, the results are worth considering in a relative sense: The survey found that 63% of the respondents thought the NSA’s program was “an acceptable way to investigate terrorism,” and 65% said it was important to investigate potential terrorists, “even if it intrudes on privacy.” They agreed, in essence, with Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s instant reaction: “Do we want security ... or do we want to get in a twit about our civil libertarian rights?” (It seems impossible that the ACLU’s fundraisers don’t have their own covert program to clone this guy.) Only 35% of those polled said they thought the NSA program was “unacceptable” and less than one in four -- 24% -- strongly objected to it. By contrast, 44% “strongly endorsed the effort.”


At the same time, the Post reported, 56% of those polled said “it was appropriate for the news media to have disclosed the existence of this secret government program.” That’s an interesting finding to stack up against the commentators who allege that USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times were “unpatriotic” when they published stories on the administration’s covert activities and spying and that the reporters involved ought to be charged with “espionage.”

Whatever its absolute limitations, the Post/ABC poll suggests that the public is in the process of making up its own mind, but wants the information to do that. A random sample of ordinary Americans, in other words, places a higher value on a free press than do the lock-step partisans in the chattering class.