- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

Everyone entrusted with U.S. government classified information is legally bound to protect it. They may not reveal the data to anyone not authorized to receive it. Collectively our national security depends on that trust. There are no exceptions. Or are there? What about individuals who seek out media surrogates to reveal classified information for them? In return these individuals demand protection from exposure and legal action. How can they be protected from exposure and legal action for such serious offenses? By the media erecting a solid, impregnable First Amendment stonewall.

There it is. If you want to reveal information critical to our national security for any reason, turn it over to a reporter. Once the information is in the hands of a reporter, the reporter and his or her news media claim the authority to decide its relevance to our national security and who should know.

On Dec. 15, 2005, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that government sources had handed them classified information on how the National Security Agency uses the Echelon eavesdropping system in our war with terrorists. As requested by their sources, the New York Times then revealed this critical information to the world. Terrorists worldwide now know the details of a critical tool in our war against them. It’s a fact. There will now be far fewer “dots” for our intelligence community to identify and connect.

It’s a no-brainer how the terrorists, our sworn enemies, reacted.

The New York Times explained why they are protecting their sources: The sources “were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.” The New York Times then explained why these sources had violated the trust our nation had placed in them: “because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.” On June 23 of this year, New York Times reporters Risen and Lichtblau told the world that the CIA and the Treasury Department were using bank transactions obtained from a Belgian cooperative to track suspected al Qaeda members. Yes, the New York Times permanently erased even more “dots.”

Can you hear terrorists cheering? Should government sources that reveal classified information to reporters feel secure hiding behind media-erected stonewalls? Consider the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the atomic scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He had been suspected of disclosing classified information to China.

During the media frenzy surrounding Dr. Lee, New York Times reporter Risen again reported information obtained from government sources. He wasn’t alone. Along with the Times, reporters from The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and the Associated Press all used information received from government sources during their hard-hitting media frenzy. Trouble is, Dr. Lee hadn’t revealed any classified information. Dr. Lee sued the Energy and Justice departments, claiming they had violated his rights by revealing he was under investigation for being a spy.

During the federal trial, the reporters were ordered to reveal the government sources of their stories. The reporters refused. The federal judge held the reporters in contempt of court. The reporters faced fines and jail time. Their sources faced exposure.

The media organizations pleaded in federal court that the First Amendment protected the right of their reporters to refuse to identify their government sources. The media lost. The media appealed. Every appeal denied the existence of such First Amendment protection.

The media organizations were left with one last appeal — to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court had previously ruled that the First Amendment offered no such protection. If the media went to the Supreme Court and lost, their crumbling First Amendment stonewall would totally collapse. Their sources would be exposed in a public court, and the media would then be required to report the names of their sources to the world.

The legal staff of five media organizations jointly agreed that their only alternative was to buy their way out of their legal morass. They paid Dr. Lee $750,000 in order to void the contempt sanctions the judge had issued against the reporters.

In this case, the resources of media giants protected their reporters. Their reporters would not have to pay hefty fines or serve jail time.

But what about the media’s anonymous sources that revealed the NSA’s Echelon eavesdropping and the bank transactions used to track suspected al Qaeda members? Will the media giants commit all of their resources to protect and defend each and every one? Or will the media’s anonymous sources be next to pay a price for erasing “dots”?

Jack O’Neill worked in the White House under President Carter as a telecommunications policy analyst.

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