The Pentagon celebrated the Bill of Rights bicentennial this year by announcing it was going to restrict the most precious right of them all -- the people's right to know.
For 200 years, the First Amendment has been imbedded as a fundamental of the American system. But the military brass, as the clock ticked down toward the war with Iraq, announced a replacement for the Bill of Rights -- self-serving regulations to hobble war correspondents.
This not only inhibits the right to report, but the greater infringement is on the people's right to an unofficial version of events. The First Amendment entitles Americans to a rival account of the news, an independent measure by which to judge how their leaders handle a crisis.
Yet the Pentagon decreed that correspondents would be shepherded around the battle area by military escorts and that their reports would be subject to security review. Plain and simple, the brass would love to draw a curtain of secrecy between foreign operations and the people back home.
The generals don't want their moves to reach home through what they consider to be the distorting prism of the media. If they want something known, they would rather release it through their own tightly controlled mechanisms.
There is no military necessity for it -- no requirements of secrecy or sensitivity that should supersede the people's First Amendment rights. The reasons are twofold:
First, the military was badly burned by the Vietnam experience. The United States got bogged down in a backwater war that turned stagnant. When military tactics failed to dislodge the Viet Cong and when Americans at home lost their stomach for the bloodshed, the generals blamed the media.
Second, the Pentagon has invested billions of dollars in sophisticated weaponry that may not perform well under battle conditions. Battlefield command-and-control centers could malfunction. Troops under fire could mishandle their fancy equipment. Poor results on the battleground could jeopardize multibillion-dollar defense contracts. The Pentagon could be tempted to suppress news that endangered the military-industrial complex.
Of course, the military censors will deny that they are censors and will swear that their interventions are intended solely to safeguard our fighting men and women. But history has demonstrated that troops will be safer, not in the tender care of the military, but under the watchful eye of the public through the news media.
This is an issue that invites the response of Americans who value their First Amendment rights enough to exercise them. If you want to comment, we'll collect and tabulate your views. Then we'll transmit them in bulk to the Pentagon. The more letters we receive, the more weight they will carry.
Let the Pentagon know how you feel. Address your letters to: "Press Censorship," Jack Anderson, P.O. Box 2300, Washington, D.C. 20013.