The tension between liberty and security is as old as the Republic--and as new as the latest high-tech listening device. In wartime, that tension very often plays itself out as a battle between the White House and the press. It is doing so again now. The script is ever the same: the White House asserts it is the protector of our security; the press maintains it is the guardian of our liberty. * The stories in the New York Times and other newspapers about the government's highly classified program to monitor bank records have provoked outrage from the White House. President George W. Bush called them "disgraceful" and said the revelations caused "great harm" to America. Vice President Dick Cheney said the press had "made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult."
I do not know if they are right. What I do know is that Presidents in wartime assert that their constitutional responsibility for national security trumps any issue of civil liberties. Often that has meant trampling on them. From John Adams' Sedition Act to Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus to Woodrow Wilson's draconian Espionage Act to F.D.R.'s internment of American citizens of Japanese descent, Presidents have constitutionally overreached. Last week's Supreme Court decision in the Hamdan case suggested that Bush had too--although his actions hardly compare with the examples above.
When the press runs a story the White House claims is harmful to security, the word disloyalty inevitably creeps into the conversation. The line between dissent and disloyalty, between harmful revelations and vital ones, is murky. Often we never really know. But I would argue that the judicious questioning of the conduct and morality of war is the furthest thing from disloyalty: it is an expression of deep patriotism and the essence of responsible citizenship.
Very often in our history, that task has fallen to the press. From the publication of the Pentagon papers and the Watergate probe to TIME's recent revelations about the tragedy at Haditha, our job is to speak truth to power. It is a messy process, and we have not always succeeded.
The framers guarded the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to make sure the press had the freedom to question the government. Jefferson and Madison believed that democracy could easily descend into tyranny and a vigorous press was necessary to prevent our leaders from getting too full of themselves.
There's not an editor in America who didn't wonder what he or she would have done in the case of the National Security Agency spying story and the recent Treasury revelations. It's impossible to say unless you had all the information before you and could hear the case the government made against publishing. But I believe the moral calculus of whether or not to publish is a basic one: Does the potential harm to public security outweigh the likely benefit to the public interest? If it does, hold fire. Attempting to answer that question isn't easy, but that's our responsibility not only as journalists but also as citizens.
This sometimes bitter crossfire between the government and the press is not a bad thing. In fact, such a rough-and-tumble debate is at the heart of American democracy, a 218-year-old seesaw over competing values that will and should continue for as long as we are a nation.