Thursday, January 15, 2009

Freedom of Speech vs Freedom of Smart

One of the things that sets the US apart from many other nations is what we call The Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the general term given to the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and it lays out the fundamental rights of US citizens: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search, and so on. It was written early in our history when the framers of the Constitution realized that while they'd crafted a good guide for representative government, they had somehow forgotten to enshrine the rights for which they'd just fought a terrible revolutionary war.

Americans love their rights, and we tend to trumpet them at every opportunity. Unfortunately, what we talk about less frequently is responsibilities. If you have absolute freedom, you can easily have unlimited chaos, and so we have a vast code of laws which - essentially - restrict those freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights. We can own a gun, but we can't use it to murder our neighbor. We enjoy free speech, but are enjoined from yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. We have the right to be secure from unreasonable searches, but the police can obtain a search warrant to go through our things if they've convinced a judge that there's reasonable cause to believe we've committed a crime. We've learned to live with the balance between rights and responsibilities.

Well, most of us have.

I thought about this most recently when I read this article - Report: US Rejected Israeli Plea to Attack Iran.

This CNN article was based on a story by a New York Times reporter which detailed how the government of Israel had asked the US for various types of advanced weapons and passive assistance in conducting an attack on Iran's nuclear complex at Natanz. According to the author, the US government turned down the request because it could jeopardize operations in Iraq and have wider repercussions. But the part of the article that really made my hair stand up was this:

"Bush, instead, persuaded Israeli officials to not proceed with the attack by sharing with them some details of covert U.S. operations aimed at sabotaging Iran's nuclear ambitions..."


As I read this, a reporter for a major US newspaper has decided that his press freedom has granted him the right to expose what is certainly - if it exists - a program of extreme secrecy. I'm quite sure that the Iranian internal security organizations were very happy to learn about this, and are busy trying to stop it.

The purpose of Iran's nuclear program is, of course, open to interpretation. There are those who fervently believe that the program is entirely peaceful and dedicated to providing electricity for hospitals and orphanages. And there are those who believe that this may be true, but is at its heart a blind to provide cover for an attempt to develop a nuclear weapon. I happen to belong to the second camp.

I don't know about you, but one of the things that scares me more than the Internal Revenue Service is the thought of a nuclear weapon in the hands of a religious zealot who believes God speaks directly to him and has given him the authority to kill those who do not share his form of religious belief. This is, of course, the same person who has announced his desire to "wipe Israel off the map." I'm no particular friend of Israel, but I can understand the Israelis might be a little concerned about this.

Which brings us back to the New York Times story. What has been gained by exposing the possible existence of a "covert" program? I think the only winner in this was Iran.

We have many freedoms, and we cherish all of them. If you don't believe that, just try to convince a gun owner that there should be any restrictions on his ability to own a 155mm howitzer. But with freedom comes responsibility. I believe it was unnecessary and irresponsible for the Times reporter to publish this story. I don't know if there really is a covert program to fiddle with (that's a technical term) the Iranian nuclear program...the government doesn't usually check with me before doing such things. What I do know is that the thought of a nuclear weapon in the hands of a rigidly theocratic government is a very, very scary thing.

And I depend upon my government to protect me from it.

Freedom of speech is good. Sadly, though, it isn't always accompanied by Freedom of Smart.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Malaise Inc said...

I think this is much ado about nothing for a couple of reasons. First, how do you suppose the reporter learned about this? The government leaks non-specific information like this all the time. Are those government officials traitors, or is it possible that the leak is intentional? In fact, I recall plenty of sabre-rattling and talk of covert operations when it comes to Iran and it's nuclear program. I am pretty certain that this information is out there because the government wants it out there. Second, this falls into the "Duh!" category. Iran is certainly aware that we are engaged in such operations even if we don't report it in the press. Since the article gives no details, it doesn't tell the Iranian leadership anything they don't already know.

Anonymous said...

As a former intelligence professional, as is Bilbo, I beg to differ with Malaise. Bilbo revealed two problems; government officials who talk out of turn, and newspapers who haven't the smarts and judgement to realize some things should never be published, even if some government official foolishly blabbed them. Up until the Vietnam era, both the govvies and the press had worked out a detente that kept the first amendment alive without jeopardizing national security. Both sides seem to have lost the professionalism that made the unspoken agreement possible. I present two reasons for disagreeing with Malaise that this leak was deliberate. First, the NYT is no longer is the authoritative newspaper it once was (it has lost its trust among professionals), and Malaise's own point--the Iranians already know what is being done against them in general. This leak was too specific--what most of us forget is that when operations are publicly blown, often the price is the life of trusted asset.

Bilbo, you know who supports you on this one.

Malaise Inc said...

I stand corrected. I had read the CNN report, which seemed non-specific enough. It seemed to be more of the general sabre-rattling we have been engaged in with regard to Iran over the last few years. When the discussion got "brought back" I (wrongly) assumed it was the same article. The Gray Lady reported something altogether different. Mea culpa.

fiona said...

I'm not sure about this one.
I'll return when I feel competent to
comment intelligently (don't wait up)

Mike said...

"a former intelligence professional, as is Bilbo"

Bilbo, does this mean what I think it means?

Bilbo said...

Malaise and Anonymous - thanks for the comments. We're thinking, which is a good thing.

Fiona - I'll wait. But I'm not getting any younger.

Mike - I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you, and Claudia would probably object.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Those that bark most about Rights are those in the wrong.

The Mistress of the Dark said...


fiona said...

Stop it! Your making me giggle and I'm still pondering btw.

Blog Stalker said...

I am so completely on your side on this and could not agree more. So often the scoop is more important than anything and sometimes seems that the author may actually WANT to hurt America's interests, whether it be its people, its treasure or its security.

Have a great day!

Alex said...

Rare is the modern reporter would would quash a story because they determined that it wasn't in the best interest of the public, especially when it comes to leaked/sensitive information. I fear the days of responsible journalism are gone now, represented only by a handful of what I'd refer to as real journalists.

That being said, I have a real problem for government leaders who spill the beans to the press without permission, talk about sensitive topics above and outside their area of knowledge, and generally undo all that our intelligence professionals work so hard to accomplish.

Anonymous said...


On behalf of Bilbo and myself, and all US members of the intelligence profession, thank you for expressing the problem as clearly as it could be expressed.

Both misbehaving groups make it much, much, much harder for the US to succeed politically, militarily, and morally.

Their gain is so ephemeral and the damage so permanent...

Bilbo's anonymous friend

Daniel said...

The "anything for a story" mentality for the press, along with the misguided belief that the American public needs to know everything that the Government does to make people safe saddens me.

But I really don't deeply believe that reporters are interested in the safety of the country (liberal bias that it is someone elses responsibility, not theirs) anymore. A lot of them are so desperate to keep their jobs and be noticed that nothing else really fills their head. The days of the noble reporter as a cornerstone of America's freedom have come and gone.

That said I still blame the government worker/public official that spilled the beans on classified information. While the reporter only has his own conscous, this turd had evert reason to know better. I hope they find him and turn him out (right into jail...).