Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How a People's President Sounds

John Kiriakou, who is the only person who has been prosecuted in connection to the torture program of the Central Intelligence Agency, was sentenced last month to two and a half years in prison -- not for torture (which he did not commit), but because he confirmed the name of one torturer to a journalist who did not publish it.  Ever since Kiriakou began to inform the public about said program, largely through interviews with media, he and his wife have been harassed by the CIA, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and by the Internal Revenue Service.  The Department of Justice even charged him with multiple counts of espionage but later dropped those charges.

President Obama, three months after an election he won with a campaign that sought to keep the masses ill-informed, still refuses to prosecute anyone who ordered, performed, covered up or legally excused torture, or who participated in the politically-motivated disclosure of the identity of covert agent Valerie Plame Wilson of the CIA.  Meanwhile, Obama continues an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, most notably Pfc. Bradley Manning, and continues an avoidance of print journalists that is highly unusual for a modern chief executive of the United States, as the media in this land continue to increase focus on domestic and irrelevant matters.

On April 27, 1961, Pres. John Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association.  After his witty reference to the pro-Republican bias of the media, he stated government transparency and the public debate that results from it are essential to the meaning of this country.  Kennedy challenged the media to be critical.  He declared the government and media should grant the public more news that is substantive, especially with regard to international affairs, and explain it better.  Here are excerpts from that speech.  Boldface is added.

Kennedy (Abbie Rowe / White House)
I have selected as the title of my remarks, "The President and the Press."  Some may suggest this would be more naturally worded, "The President versus the Press," but those are not my sentiments.  However, when a well-known diplomat from another country demanded recently that our State Department repudiate certain newspaper attacks on his colleague, it was unnecessary for us to reply that this administration was not responsible for the press, for the press had already made clear it was not responsible for this administration.

(laughter, applause)

Nevertheless, my purpose here tonight is not to deliver the usual assault on the so-called one-party press...  Nor is my purpose tonight to discuss... the televising of presidential press conferences.  I think it is highly beneficial to have some 20 million Americans regularly sit in on these conferences to observe, if I may say so, the incisive, intelligent, and courteous qualities displayed by your Washington correspondents.

(laughter, applause)

...My topic tonight is a more sober one...  The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are, as a people, inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings.  We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweigh the dangers cited to justify it...

Even today, there is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.  And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.  That I do not intend to permit, to the extent it is in my control.  And no official of my administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes, or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.


...[The Soviet regime's] preparations are concealed, not published.  Its mistakes are buried, not headlined.  Its dissenters are silenced, not praised.  No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed.  It conducts the Cold War, in short, with a wartime discipline no democracy would ever hope or wish to match...

[A]n obligation I share... is our obligation to inform and alert the American people -- to make certain they possess all the facts they need, and understand them as well -- the perils, the prospects, the purposes of our program and the choices we face.

No president should fear public scrutiny of his program, for from that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition.  And both are necessary.  I do not ask your newspapers to support an administration, but I do ask for your help in the tremendous task to inform and alert the American people.


For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.  I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers -- I welcome it.  This administration intends to be candid about its errors, for as a wise man once said, "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it."  We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.

Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed -- and no republic can survive.  That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy, and why our press is... specifically protected by the Constitution -- not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants" -- but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

This means greater coverage and analysis of international news, for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local.  It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission.  And it means, finally, that government, at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security, and we intend to do it.

Early in the 17th Century, Francis Bacon remarked on three recent inventions that were already transforming the world: the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press.  The international links that were first forged by the compass have made us all citizens of the world, the hopes and threats of one becoming the hopes and threats of us all...  And so, it is to the printing press -- the recorder of man's deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news -- that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help, man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.

This piece originally appeared on Facebook.

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