October 25, 2017–Over at the website for the National Security Archive I am today posting an “electronic briefing book” that samples the grand jury records, now unsealed, of the Roosevelt administration’s 1942 attempt to prosecute the Chicago Tribune under the Espionage Act. In today’s superheated atmosphere where presidential acolytes and the president himself speak of pulling the licenses of broadcasting networks, or firing reporters who write what they don’t like, the Tribune case holds special meaning.
You can amble among the records at your leisure but here is a brief summary: In June 1942 the United States engaged Japan in a naval battle off Midway Island in the Pacific. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. Navy codebreakers (covered in my 1995 book Combined Fleet Decoded) the Americans knew the Japanese plan and their fleet organization. Admiral Chester Nimitz laid a trap for the adversary and, in the ensuing battle, the most important Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. This ranks among the decisive battles of World War II. A Chicago Tribune reporter, Stanley Johnston, was on another Navy vessel returning from the South Pacific, and he saw information taken from a Nimitz message that named the Japanese warships and detailed their task organization. When Johnston arrived on the U.S. west coast he wrote the article the Tribune published. The newspaper’s editor disguised the source by datelining the piece “Washington,” and attributing it to “naval intelligence.” The Navy, furious, immediately began an investigation. President Roosevelt, who had once been a top Navy official and now enjoyed the benefit of the codebreakers’ work, wanted to go after both the journalist Johnston and the newspaper Chicago Tribune. The Justice Department prosecutor assigned to the case actually advised against proceeding. At the behest of FDR and Navy secretary Frank Knox, the attorney general forged ahead anyway. A grand jury was convened in Chicago. The case fell apart as predicted: journalist Johnston had not had a formal requirement to submit his articles to censorship, while the Chicago Tribune’s responsibility was to have censors look at material about U.S. forces, not Japanese ones. Further, the Espionage Act aimed at physical documents, not the information contained in them. The grand jury refused to indict.
In actuality the Tribune case was about what legal experts call “prior restraint”–whether government should have the power to determine what can be said in public discourse, and regulate that by suppressing information it does not like. These are hallmarks of dictatorships. In Nazi Germany a Propaganda Ministry decided what news the public could see and hear. In George Orwell’s 1984 the “Ministry of Truth” did the same thing. In America, the Constitution features a Bill of Rights and the very First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech. Those First Amendment rights were further confirmed in 1971 when the Nixon administration tried to enforce a prior restraint against the New York Times and Washington Post, which had begun printing their reporting on the Pentagon Papers.
Today we live in an era where too many, starting with the president, churn out “fake news.” Opinion polls show a disturbing percentage of Americans in favor of actions–like pulling broadcast licenses–that would ostensibly curb fake news. Of course, the problem is who decides what is fake? Only a Ministry of Truth. That is not admissible, yesterday, today or tomorrow. There is no substitute for a well-informed citizenry, and citizens have an obligation to decide for themselves what meaning lies in an issue. The desire not to make that effort, to rely upon potted news, is what opens the door to fakery. One thing that has, for the most part, disappeared from American schools is civics class. Schools used to teach the Constitution, and government, and rights. We equipped citizens for the challenges of interpreting the news around them. In my current book The Ghosts of Langley I write at length about abuses of the CIA torture program in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Imagine if there had been a Ministry of Truth deciding what we could know about these outrages. Lets get those civics classes back!