By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — On Monday, my Washington Post colleagues celebrated winning the Pulitzer Prize for public service along with the Guardian newspaper for their reporting on Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency.
On Wednesday, Post columnist Marc Thiessen held a counterdemonstration.
Thiessen, who writes a weekly online column for The Post, hosted an event at the American Enterprise Institute devoted in large part to denouncing the Guardian, The Post and the Pulitzer committee for their actions. Thiessen, also an AEI fellow, said journalists at The Post — “my newspaper,” as he put it — should not have published the articles and had done something “incredibly damaging” to national security.
Thiessen had already written that The Post’s actions broke the law, and there has been healthy debate about the Pulitzer board’s decision. But Thiessen’s guest, British member of Parliament Liam Fox, went further. “What sort of world do we live in where that gets a Pulitzer Prize for public service?” he asked the AEI audience. “An award for public service for possibly the greatest betrayal of our national secrets of all time strikes me as quite bizarre.”
The two kicked around the idea that journalists might be to blame for future terrorist attacks. “If there is another 9/11, another London subway bombing, how is this debate going to look in retrospect?” Thiessen asked.
“You could take a very politically tempting route to say, well, thank you to the newspapers who have helped Mr. Snowden. Thank you to those who have given awards to those who have helped betray our national secrets,” Fox said, before proposing that it’s not time to “get into pointing the finger.”
But minutes earlier, Fox had said: “The next time when you get a bomb going off in a subway or a marathon, when someone’ s child is abducted by a pedophile ring, you might want to thank those who made it easier for those people to do those things.”
Fox didn’t seem to know much about the Snowden dispute on this side of the Atlantic — at one point he confused The Washington Post and the New York Times — and, in any event, he was much more aggrieved by what Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian had done than anything else. But it took some gall for the MP to cross the pond to deliver a lecture on what’s wrong with the public discourse in America.
“Just as I think there is a smug, self-congratulatory element inside the media, which lives in a very limited bubble,” he said, “I think the same applies to Beltway politicians who are obsessed with the internal mechanics of politics and with, let’s face it, abstract political issues.”
The American emphasis on these abstract issues — namely, civil liberties — means that “the penny has not dropped” for Americans the way it has for Britons, who are more tolerant of their spies. Fox said there has been a “Beltway discussion where the media is congratulating itself,” and he asked: “Has anyone shown that any of the surveillance activity has been illegal under the oversight that is set up in the United States under a system that is overseen by Congress? … It seems to me that the argument has always been hijacked by libertarian elements in United States politics.”
Thiessen raised the possibility that American conservatives have been “duped” by a “left-wing cabal that is trying to undermine American diplomacy and American intelligence.”
I respect Thiessen’s passion, but I think the explanation may be simpler. Unlike Fox’s constituents, Americans have a Bill of Rights, drafted by our forebears in reaction to the rule of Fox’s forebears. It protects, among other things, our free speech and privacy.
Certainly, many of the Snowden-fueled disclosures following the original NSA revelation have been gratuitous and harmful; those, and his sheltering in Russia rather than arguing his case in a U.S. court, raise doubts about his motives. But the original NSA leaks were justified because U.S. intelligence officials had misled the public and members of Congress about the program. There’s no value of “oversight” if the overseers are being fed lies.
Fox went on, about the “ultra-narcissistic” Snowden committing “treason” and the Guardian’s “incompetence, arrogance, all added to a perverse anti-Western ideology.”
“I am outraged,” the Briton said. “I hope you’re outraged.”
“I’m outraged,” Thiessen assured him.
This hadn’t been in doubt.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.