The Captive Press

July/​August 1995 • Policy Report

There is an inherent tension between the press freedomsguaranteed by the First Amendment and a global interventionist foreignpolicy that places a premium on secrecy, rapid execution, andlack of public dissent, writes Ted Galen Carpenter in TheCaptive Press: Foreign Policy Crisis and the First Amendment,just published by the Cato Institute.

Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the Instituteand the author or editor of numerous books on defense and foreignpolicy issues, contends that a high priority of the nationalsecurity bureaucracy is to manipulate or obstruct the news media,thereby thwarting critical coverage of military and foreign policyinitiatives.

The government’s restrictions on the press during the PersianGulf War and the outright exclusion of journalists during the mostimportant stages of the Grenada and Panama invasions wereespecially flagrant examples of the government’s“iron-fist” tactics, according to Carpenter. Concerted campaigns toimpugn the patriotism and integrity of journalists who filestories critical of Washington’s foreign policy have also beenwaged with disturbing frequency.

Carpenter emphasizes, however, that such crude forms ofcoercion by the national security bureaucracy are not the only sourceof danger to a vigorous, independent press. An equally serious threatis posed by the government’s abuse of the secrecy system tocontrol the flow of information and prevent disclosures thatmight cast doubt on the wisdom or morality of current policy.Frequently, overclassification is combined with coercivestrategies, most notably threats to prosecute for violating espionagestatutes both those who leak classified information and those whopublish such information.

Most insidious and corrosive of all, Carpenter contends, isthe attempt by officials to entice journalists to be members ofthe foreign policy “team” rather than play their properrole as skeptical monitors of government conduct. All too often,members of the media have succumbed to such appeals and have becomelittle more than cheerleaders for dubious foreign policy initiatives.That was clearly the case during the Gulf War and, until disasterstruck and produced sober second thoughts, the intervention in Somalia.

Government efforts to either convert the press into a conduitfor propaganda or silence critics were once confined to “emergency“situations in which the nation was battling for survival–mostnotably during the two world wars. In the course of the Cold War,however, such policies became the norm during minor conflicts andeven during periods of peace. Those habits of manipulation andintimidation have continued in the post‐​Cold War period, withalarming implications for the vitality of the First Amendment.

Carpenter argues that although freedom of the press has notbeen killed in action during the many international crises of the 20thcentury, it has been seriously wounded. One of the most important tasks ofthe post‐​Cold War era is to restore it to health.

Accomplishing that goal will require reforms to prevent misuseof the classification system and to lift the threat of espionage prosecutionof those who dare to reveal government misconduct in foreign affairs. Equallyimportant, Carpenter insists, is the adoption of a new, lessinterventionist U.S. foreign policy. That step is essential toend the garrison state mentality that has dominated the countryfor the past half century and continues to endanger pressfreedoms.

Jonathan Kwitny, author of Endless Enemies, says, “Nosooner had the Department of State notified me that I couldn’t seeWorld War II era documents from Poland for my biography of Pope JohnII because ‘national security’ was at stake, than Ted GalenCarpenter’s book arrived, like aspirin for a headache–or therapyfor a cancer. The Captive Press is both easy to read andmassively documented. The Clinton administration has promised tostop concealing our politics and our history, and maybeCarpenter’s engrossing and thoroughly documented case will makethe government–for once–live up to its word.”