Governments Have A Long History Of Calling Journalists 'Traitors' When They Publish Embarassing Materials

from the a-little-history-lesson dept

It's been somewhat incredible to watch government officials try to claim that reporters covering the NSA revelations from Ed Snowden's leaked documents are somehow "traitors." Last week, in the UK, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, made a fool of himself going around telling other newspapers that The Guardian had somehow helped terrorists. However, as Amy Davidson at the New Yorker reminds us, when the government suddenly starts calling journalists "traitors," it pays to be skeptical, because it's most likely that the government is just very embarrassed about some news that makes them look bad.

Davidson relays the story of "the Spiegel Affair" from 1962, in which German officials went completely insane in attacking Der Spiegel for supposedly "putting lives at risk" by revealing 41 "highly classified state secrets." Officials also claimed that the publisher and the reporter were fleeing the country and needed to be stopped and arrested. The publication's offices had to be raided. Of course, it all later turned out to be almost entirely bogus. The report was certainly embarrassing to German officials -- highlighting how ill-prepared the country was in the case of an attack, because a simulation had resulted in fifteen million West Germans dead. Many of the official claims were outright lies (like the publisher skipping town to Cuba, which never happened). While that doesn't mean that reporters can't sometimes reveal too much, it's a good reminder that when the government flips its lid in situations like this, it pays to take the claims with a very large grain of salt.

The key paragraph from Davidson makes the point clear:
The professional secret-keepers are phenomenally bad at distinguishing between the threat of terror and their terror at being threatened—or worse, as with Strauss, at being humiliated. They need the press not just to shake them up but also to keep them from being destabilized by their own weaknesses and vanities.
We've discussed at length the overclassification problem in the government, and this is all a symptom of that. The government likes to overclassify things that may embarrass government officials -- and thus they tend to overreact when those things eventually come out. This is, in part, because of the embarrassing information, but also because of the attempt to cover up the embarrassment, which only makes the whole thing worse.

Either way, this historical example is good to remember as we continue to see government officials make fanciful claims without any evidence to support them about how much the Chelsea Manning or Ed Snowden leaks have "harmed" our safety.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 3:51am

    A quote from George Bush 41 comes to mind "If the American people knew what we did, they'd lynch us in the street." With all the framing in murders the government seems to be behind, or at least complicit, maybe they have a reason to be fearful.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 3:59am

    8 page letter explaining the government point of view.

    Attention All,

    I (redacted) don't (redacted) trust (redacted) government. As you have read from this 8 page letter of explanation. (Redacted)

    Capt (Redacted)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    RyanNerd (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 4:20am

    Reason is the first victim of strong emotion

    Power tends to isolate those who hold too much of it. Eventually, they lose touch with reality ... and fall.

    FRANK HERBERT, Dune Messiah

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 6:00pm

      Re: Reason is the first victim of strong emotion

      The problem is the thousands, even millions of people who are harmed between the point of losing touch nd that fall.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Disgusted, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 4:20am

    Nothing to see here, move along.

    The thing all of these government idiots keep forgetting is that eventually ALL of their "secrets" will come out. They, of course, fervently hope that they are out of office and beyond prosecution when that happens. Note the word "hope". Eventually, none of their classification will hide their misdeeds.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 4:25am

    The occasions where the term "traitor" is used to smear dissidents and people who revealed or said something the Govt dislikes is far greater than when the Govt is actually right. One should take what the Govt says with an Salar de Uyuni of salt on treason matters...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 4:26am

    It is an old trope that always pays off.

    When, once upon a time, there were a few brave congresscritters who dared to question what was happening in the wake of 9-11. They were labeled terrorist lovers, and quickly shut the hell up. Stirring up jingoistic, xenophobic, and racist feelings wasn't that hard in a country where people are told your life is worse because of 'bad people'.

    Now years later the terrorist lover trope isn't nearly as powerful, because the average person is mostly aware that many of the knee jerk reactions are theater meant to line the pockets of contributors.

    Now when anyone shows wrongdoing, they are traitors selling us out to the terrorists!!! We have our representatives allowing people to lie to them, and repeating lies as facts to support a narrative that keeps the campagin funds flowing.

    Maybe it is time to consider that the real traitors are those who are lying to our faces. That they are exploiting the imaginary fears they created in citizens to keep control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 5:03am



      (self fulfilling prophesy)

      gov stooge: "See - I was right!" pats self on back

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Loki, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 7:40pm


      Well to be fair, from their point of view anyone who truly supports freedom and opposes tyranny really is a traitor.

      As for considering that the one lying to our faces are the real traitors, I've long ago accepted that as fact.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 4:30am

    You know...

    Considering the US was founded by 'traitors', you'd think they'd be a little more careful throwing that label around.

    As the saying goes: One man's traitor is another man's patriot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    RyanNerd (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 5:00am

    My wife is from the UK

    Every 4th of July she refers to as: Bloody Rebels day

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 6:11am

    And Cameron took orders

    Four things happened:

    1) MI5's Andrew Parker did an attack on the free press making vague claims.
    2) The fake-press under MI5's thumb, did their propaganda piece repeating the vague unsubstantiated claims.
    3) The comments section of those papers were deluged with death threats to the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, and Snowden, re-inforcing Parker's attack.
    4) Prime Minister Cameron was forced to back Parker.

    I suspect the comments are astroturf, because the claims were weak and not backed by any common sense. Who has strong views about weak claims? Only PR men and astroturf.

    I suspect it was coordinated with Parker's comment, and maybe even Parker knew about it because of its timing. Companies need hiring, staff prepped, refer to HBGary Wikileaks from 2011. That leak also showed HBGary wanting to attack Glenn Greenwald.

    So what we have is a spook in a free country driving government policy to attack the free press.

    Parker has no business doing this. Nobody elected him.
    He doesn't dispute the truthfulness of the crimes reported by the Guardian, he has made no prosecutable allegations to the police.

    He needs to resign and apologize.

    Techdirt article of HBGary attack on Glenn Greenwald from 2011. Parker is siding with this attack by acting as an agent to achieve it: d-wikileaks-propaganda-bofa-attack-glenn-greenwald.shtml

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 6:22am

    That's why the US wrote treason in to the constitution

    The founding fathers wrote treason into the constitution just for reasons like this.

    A dictator's favorite weapon for dealing with anyone they don't like, such as trouble makers, is to brand them a traitor and have them jailed or executed for treason.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    madasahatter (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 6:29am

    True treason

    Publishing embarrassing but (over)classified information is not treason. What the dimbulbs forget is that other intelligence agencies are often very good at finding this information out and using it.

    Most real traitors are funneling secret information for money or because of other loyalties. The information they are sending is usually highly technical such as keys to codes not internal gossip.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 7:25am

    the behaviour of governments, particularly like the USA and the UK shows how scared the leaders are of being kicked out of office. from what has been disclosed about the various happenings in both countries, it cant come soon enough. no country should give away the privacy and freedom that has meant so much to the people, in return for feeling safe most of the time. no one wants anything bad to happen but we are creating our own terrorist societies within government. that has to stop!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2013 @ 9:37am

    Doesn't matter. All they have to do is arrest you then find you in comtempt and jail you for not revealing your sources.

    Thanks, USA. Making the entire world proud...

    ... again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), Oct 21st, 2013 @ 12:46pm

    So in short...

    When a government resents freedom of the press, or tries to pass reactionary regulations on what the press can say, that's how we know the press is serving its intended civic function.

    As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States
    Encrypted with Morbius-Cochrane Perfect Steganographic Codec 1.2.001
    Monday, October 21, 2013 12:44:31 PM
    loft legs sign birthday rank termite hosepipe beast

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dick seaman, Oct 23rd, 2013 @ 10:08am

    pandering hookers

    what do you expect from pandering hookers, no term limits, for elected officials or supreme court justices and any other USA govt. employee, ingtreats

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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