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When the Pen Is the Sword

Balancing the need for secrecy in a war against terrorism with the need to remain a free and open society is delicate work. The Bush administration, Congress, and the American people can find their way to that balance, even in the midst of rapidly moving events (see story, page one).

Erring on the side of vigilance against leaks may be necessary. The president was right, for example, to initially threaten Capitol Hill with less access to classified information after some leaks by Congress to the news media. Now, after that warning, Mr. Bush and Congress have vowed to work more secretly when exchanging information and formulating policy.

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TV, too, received a heads-up this week from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that coded messages aimed at hidden terrorists could be contained in pre-taped videos from the Al Qaeda network.

Suddenly, journalists are being asked to restrain themselves on the assumption that words or pictures may help the enemy. Yet they must also make a judgment on whether the administration simply wants to block terrorist propaganda. Vigilance also includes a vigorous watch over the principles of free speech.

Past attempts by the federal government to limit journalists during war have bred extreme caution within the media. But government officials also know that many mistakes might not have been made during those wars, had more information been made available. Americans need information that can help guide the war effort. Both sides - officials and the media - have learned enough to come up with new rules that will lead to effective restraints without censorship.

Fighting for freedom from terrorism shouldn't also mean fighting for freedom of the press.


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