Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

A new Cold War, a new rationale for secrecy

In this meticulously balanced speech, late President John F. Kennedy begins by asserting that secrecy is abhorrent to democratic values. From this, he argues that no government should seek to stifle a free press engaged in bringing to the public the information it needs to maintain a free and open society.

Pres. John F. Kennedy, 27 April 1961

Pres. John F. Kennedy enjoins the press to censor itself,
27 April 1961.
[ Image Source ]

Kennedy then goes on, however, to call for voluntary self-censorship on the part of newspaper publishers and editors. This he felt necessary because of the Cold War, which because of its lack of direct military conflicts failed to engage the instincts of the press for respecting national security. Had the rivalry with the USSR and its allies and satellites been marked by armed incursions and the launching of missiles, he felt sure, journalists would recognize their duty and keep out of their publications information of potential use to the “enemy.”

This raises a nice question: Is there a meaningful difference, from the perspective of the reading public, between a press that is censored by government edict and one that voluntarily censors itself?

Today, we find ourselves amid a new “cold war”: the so-called War on Terror. Like its predecessor, this is marked by the absence of pitched battles between conventional military forces; instead, as before, it puts a premium on covert actions, guerrilla warfare, asymmetric conflict and the war of ideas. As before, too, this is a “war” of indefinite duration and without a clear objective; nor is there any means by which we can say that we have won it. And, like its predecessor, but perhaps rather more so, it is widely perceived as a manufactured “war” in which we engage at the behest of an ever-more-avaricious ruling elite bent on furthering its own power and keeping the attention of the public away from its own peculations.

As in the Cold War, therefore, we now hear from cryptocrats in Washington who would suppress information needed by the public on the specious grounds of national security. Here are the roots of the drive to destroy WikiLeaks, to criminalize its leaders, and to browbeat future such unconventional journalists into self-censorship. Here, too, is the origin of the campaign by Senator Joe Lieberman and his congressional allies to create an internet “kill switch.”

But in this new Cold War, we have learned certain lessons from the old one. Chief among these is that we cannot trust those who bid us let them act under a cloak of darkness and who threaten us with destruction at the hands of our “enemies” should we shine a light upon them. For we have come to understand that sometimes our deadliest enemies are not our designated “enemies,” but those who would have us call them our protectors.

Originally published as a review of a transcript of Pres. Kennedy’s 27 April 1961 address to the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association. Update: As of
18 April 2015, the page returns a 404 error.

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