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National security vs. freedom of the press

The media must monitor the powerful, not just serve as their mouthpiece.

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Most everyone loves a whistle-blower. When there are shady dealings or bureaucratic bunglings, often it is the whistle-blower, the guy or gal on the inside with the unfailing moral compass who simply can't bear it anymore, who comes out the hero.

Sherron Watkins, Enron's famous insider, not only exposed that company's accounting scams, her testimony before Congress made her a star. She was one of Time magazine's people of the year in 2002. And she later went on to become a well-known consultant and public speaker.

How can you not love someone like Ms. Watkins who puts it all on the line for truth, justice, and the common good - unless, of course, you're Ken Lay?

But it's not always that clean in the age of the "war on terror." Truth may be clear in many cases, but the common good is not always defined the same way by every person. And that has placed the news media in an awkward situation.

Last week, ABC News reported that two of its correspondents were warned by a source, "It's time for you to get some new cellphones, quick." The implication was that the reporters' phone calls were being tracked by government so it could learn who their confidential sources were.

The FBI later acknowledged that, in cases where it was taking "logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act was committed by a government employee by the unauthorized release of classified information," there are times when "the records of a private person are sought" - including a journalist's - through an established legal process.

On Sunday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said laws on the books seem to indicate that journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information.

Some undoubtedly cheer that kind of thinking. Anything to keep us safe. And the questions this scenario raises are obvious. Are these whistle-blowers heroes or traitors? And, when the media publishes and airs their allegations, are they complicit in bringing justice or aiding the enemy?

It's sad, but for some this question has been reduced to just another subargument in the nation's all-consuming blue- versus red-America political debate. President Bush's supporters see turncoats in the press reports and his detractors see warriors for truth. But before everyone suits up in his and her red and blue jerseys, they should consider what's at stake.


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