I'm From The Government, And I'm Here To Scare You.

Glenn Greenwald on his exchange with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston:

At roughly 53:00, the Q-and-A session with the audience began, and the first questioner was NPR's national security reporter Dina Temple-Raston, whose Awlaki reporting I had criticized just a couple days earlier for uncritically repeating claims told to her by anonymous Pentagon officials. She directed her rather critical multi-part question to me, claiming, among other things, that she had seen evidence of Awlaki's guilt as a Terrorist (which she had not previously reported or described in any detail), and that led to a rather contentious -- and, in my view, quite revealing -- exchange about the role of journalists and how Awlaki can and should be punished if he is, in fact, guilty of any actual crime.

It's really an amazing exchange -- Temple-Raston snaps at Greenwald, asking him, "Isn't it possible that I've seen something you haven't seen?" When asked about the evidence of al-Awlaki's operational role in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, she smugly tells him that "he doesn't do national security for a living."

Temple-Raston is a good reporter, and hardly ignorant of the civil-liberties side of the national-security equation. I have no doubt that government officials have shown her evidence of al-Awlaki having an operational role in AQAP. But that's really beside the point when we're discussing whether or not the government has the authority to kill an American citizen without due process based on secret evidence. So it's interesting to me that she felt obligated to back Greenwald down, since that suggests the kind of analytical conclusion "objective" reporters aren't supposed to make: Al-Awlaki is guilty therefore targeting him is ok. It's also a marker of what Radley Balko refers to as the media's "statist" bias, which doesn't take place along a clear left-right spectrum but rather represents "bia[s] toward power and authority, automatically turning to politicians for solutions to every perceived problem." Balko was talking about newspaper editorial boards, but I think the analysis probably holds true in a number of other circumstances, especially when we're talking about national security since reporters are so inherently dependent on government sources.

This exchange also illustrates the degree to which the institutional problems of American journalism that helped lead to the war in Iraq haven't changed. In the run up to that conflict, the trust of journalists was purchased with limited access to evidence that brought reporters to blatantly false conclusions about the presence of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaeda.

Now we're being asked again to trust the secret evidence the government lets journalists take a peek at in order to prove their point, a point which could lead to a devastatingly broad precedent that has implications beyond eliminating this one reprehensible human being. Again, accepting even the likelihood that the government is actually right about al-Awlaki in this particular case, how could we possibly be going down this road again? We've learned absolutely nothing. 

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