The opening phrase in Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities nicely captures the national security challenges confronting the nation as a new administration takes office.
It is well known that the American Revolution was spurred in large part by the colonists’ reaction to King George’s use of the military to enforce English laws in the colonies. After the colonists had become sufficiently disgruntled by the increasingly martial measures imposed by the King, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence listed among its central complaints the tendencies of the English Crown “to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.” Just as King Charles had been beheaded in 1649 for violating what became a fundamental Anglo- American value – that soldiers are respected for defeating enemies of the state but are never to be used against their civilian neighbors – King George lost the colonies when he employed troops to control disorderly civilians.
Unpopular wars inevitably lead to sharp conflicts between Presidents and the press over the control of secret information. National security secrets find their way into print because government officials assigned to carry out questionable policies leak secret documents to reporters. The government responds to publication with threats of civil legal action and criminal prosecution. The Vietnam War produced the Pentagon Papers case, in which the government unsuccessfully sought to stop publication of a classified history of the war. More recently, national security cases have led to jail for some reporters, threats of jail for others, and warnings of criminal prosecution for still others.1 These cases, taken together, threaten to criminalize newsgathering of national security secrets.