"The government has the legal authority to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday," reports Adam Liptak deep inside today's NYT (p. 14). The article goes on to say that Gonzales repects the right of the press under the First Amendment, "But it can't be the case that that right trumps over the right that Americans would like to see, the ability of the federal government to go after criminal activity."And if it is the government that is committing the crimes? That's just the case in many of the stories told in Into the Buzzsaw, a collection of first-hand accounts of suppression of important news stories and attempts to silence the journalists who reveal them. Among the suppressed stories: CIA involvement in drug trafficking (chapters by Michael Levine & Gary Webb) and murder (J. Robert Port); excesses and even atrocities by U.S. forces in Iraq (Ashleigh Banfield) and 50 years ago in Korea (J. Robert Port); evidence that TWA Flight 800 may have been brought down by U.S. Navy missile in 1996 (Was it? I don't know, but the crime is suppression instead of investigation of testimony that suggests it was), and much more.
The suppression of stories inconvenient to the rulers is the oldest suppressed story in the world, and much of the time it has probably worked -- how many of those clay tablets from ancient Sumer were deliberately smashed by the king's censors, and what did they say? When Atahualpa defeated his half-brother Huáscar to become the Sapa (or "Supreme") Inca, he ordered the destruction of all previous history, which in the Andes was recorded mainly in a complex system of knotted cords called khipus (or quipus), decipherable only by the khipu-experts or khipukamayuqs. The only reason we even know this is that Atahualpa was captured and slain by the Francisco Pizarro's Spaniards before he could consolidate his power and erase all memory of the event.
In a gathering convoked by viceroy Cristóbal Vaca de Castro (c. 1600), the ancianos “explained that prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, Atahualpa had attempted to revise Inca history by burning all the khipu he could find and killing the khipukamayuqs.” (Brokaw, Galen. 2003. "The Poetics of Khipu Historiography: Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's Nueva corónica and the Relación de los quipucamayos." Latin American Research Review 38:111-147.)So regime change is one way we can find out about suppressed news. But what came next in the Andes was even worse. Subsequent to Atahualpa's overthrow, the conquerors introduced a new official story and a terrifying way of sustaining it: the Inquisition. So revolution or other regime change is no guarantee of freedom of information.
The only guarantee is some system where competing power-groups sponsor competing narratives, which is what has worked for the U.S. for the past two centuries -- unevenly, of course. The Alien and Sedition Acts were ultimately undone by Jefferson's Democratic Republicans, McCarthyism hit its major snag when the senator from Wisconsin took on the Army, Johnson's war in Vietnam ran up against not only massive street protests but eventually even the establishment press when the NYT decided to go with the Pentagon Papers. And that is the kind of competition that worries Gonzales and his boss in the White House. Whether they are right in every detail or not, the reporters in Buzzsaw help keep open a little more space for further competing narratives. And as Jefferson, Lincoln and other American heroes stated over and over again, that is the only way to forestall the new American Inquisition.
Drawing by Guamán Poma de Ayala of a khupucamayuq displaying his work. Click to enlarge.