Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The Legacy of Snepp 

Via Des Femmes, former S.F. Chronicle book-review editor Patricia Holt on the recent comic orgy of self-flagellation by editors and ombudsmen who regret having abandoned, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, their formerly-lofty standards of skepticism and intellectual rigor:
Why are these big publications and TV shows apologizing? They didn't used to. Apologizing never occurred when they fouled up on other buildups to war (Vietnam, for example). So why now?

A Historical View: Thank You, Frank Snepp and Ronald Reagan

I think the answer goes back to the roots of the Reagan administration and a key Supreme Court decision in 1980 against a Random House author named Frank Snepp.

Snepp was a CIA agent who had signed an agreement with the CIA "not to disclose any classified information relating to the Agency without proper authorization." After he was sent to Vietnam, Snepp became horrified at what he witnessed and wrote a book called "Decent Interval" that did not cast the CIA in a positive light.

(For one thing, Snepp suggested rather hilariously that at the end of the war, CIA agents high-tailed it out of Vietnam so fast, they overturned cabinets and spilled files in their wake that any boob could have read and published for all the world to see. But Snepp himself was not that kind of boob.)

The significance of the case is that government prosecutors said the book did not divulge classified information and never accused Snepp of disclosing any secrets. Instead, they charged, and the Supreme Court found Snepp guilty of, "faithlessness" to the CIA, and of destroying the agency's "appearance of confidentiality."

Because of Snepp's book, the CIA said it was harder to recruit new agents - after all, who would want to join such a bunch of losers? - so for that, Random House had to call back and destroy all remaining books, and Snepp had to give the U.S. Treasury any profits he had made from the book.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in the same year that the Snepp decision was handed down and used the Supreme Court decision to force CIA agents to submit all the writings and speeches they would ever make for their entire lifetime *before* publication so that the government could cut out all the SCI - meaning "sensitive compartmented information" or whatever the heck they wanted to censor.

And that was not enough. The Reagan administration soon became what is called today a "Gag Regime," requiring Department of Justice employees, then all executive branch workers - something like 100,000 government employees - to buckle under to the same "secrecy contracts." By the time George Herbert Bush was president, "secrecy contracts" had been mandated for millions of government employees AND civilian contractors.

The media knew that the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations were gutting the Constitution's measures against "prior restraint" - i.e., censorship before the fact, which is protected by the First Amendment. And they knew that Reagan cared less about national security than White House secrecy to cover up such covert military operations and illegal activities as Iran-Contra, for example.

But the American press did very little to stand up for itself or its audience. Even when Freedom of Information procedures got scuttled, little was said. Even when private companies like Brown and Williamson used the Snepp decision to create similar non-disclosure agreements with employees, nothing was said. (These agreements were supposed to stop TV news shows like "60 Minutes" from building stories around whistleblowers such as the former employee played by Russell Crowe in "The Insider.")

And the chilling effect of the Frank Snepp decision on the book business was immeasurable. Why was it, book critics like myself kept asking in the 1980s, that during the eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, only two books surfaced - one by Seymour Hersh, the other by Bob Woodward - that were critical of the White House?
(Holt exaggerates here; we can pull from the shelves a dozen contemporaneous volumes critical of the Reagan administration, most prominent among them Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency from 1988, one of the first books to dissect the phenomenon she describes.)
When Clinton came in, this attitude of defense against conservative fanatics held sway. Editors would say: We can't run a story about (Clinton appointee) Lani Guinier's very interesting idea about proportional voting or the phones will never stop ringing. Instead, let's run this 6,842nd article on Whitewater to show we don't have a liberal bias.

In the '90s, audiences kept waiting for somebody like Jim Lehrer to ask why newspapers never really questioned what was behind the impeachment of Bill Clinton - never gave Hilary Clinton's fear of a "vast Right-wing conspiracy" any real credence, even a forum for discussion, let alone front-page coverage. The lack of investigative reporting on the 2000 election went so unnoticed that it took a scene in "Fahrenheit 9/11" (of African-American leaders rejected by the Senate) to shock audiences into realizing the depth of the problem . . . .

As a result, today we are seeing the very best newspapers and news media eating themselves alive by kowtowing and apologizing to all the wrong task-masters - conservative fanatics, corporate owners, power-mad presidents.

And the book business has its own problems. One of the reasons we have hundreds of anti-Bush books today is that a smart bunch of librarians stood up for Michael Moore after 9/11 and created a movement that shamed HarperCollins into publishing "Stupid White Men." Before that, there were NO anti-Bush books, isn't that odd? Now that it's safer, there are too many.

The fact is, OF COURSE the press is liberal, in the sense that it's *liberal-minded.* It's pro-free speech, pro-civil rights, pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-diversity and pro-gay. It's laissez-faire; it's against war until the need for war is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Why hide such standards? Why apologize for it?

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