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Opening Statement by Chairman John Conyers

Opening Statement by Chairman John Conyers

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Published by Justin Elliott

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Published by: Justin Elliott on Dec 16, 2010
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12/18/2010

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Opening Statement by Chairman John Conyers, Jr.:
 
Welcome, everyone, to today’s hearing on the Legal and Constitutional Issues Raised by WikiLeaks. In the 1989case of 
Texas v. Johnson
, the Supreme Court set forth one of the fundamental principles of our democracy: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit theexpression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
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 That was Justice William Brennan, a man who understood the founding principles of our nation.Today, the Committee will consider the Wikileaks matter. The case is complicated, and involves importantquestions of national security.And no doubt important subjects of international relations and war and peace will be invoked. But fundamentally,Justice Brennan’s observation tells us almost everything we need to know.As an initial matter, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks is very unpopular right now. Many feel that the WikiLeakspublication was offensive. But being unpopular is not a crime, and publishing offensive information is not either.And the repeated calls from politicians, journalists, and other so-called experts crying out for criminal prosecutionsor other extreme measures make me very uncomfortable.Indeed, when everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone’s head, that is it a pretty strong sign weneed to slow down and take a closer look.That is why it was so encouraging to hear Jack Goldsmith, former Office of Legal Counsel head under PresidentGeorge W. Bush caution us all last week. Mr. Goldsmith wrote:“I find myself agreeing with those who think Assange is being unduly vilified. I certainly do not support or like hisdisclosure of secrets that harm U.S. national security or foreign policy interests. But as all the hand-wringing over the 1917 Espionage Act shows, it is not obvious what law he has violated.”
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 America was founded on the belief that speech is sacrosanct, and that the answer to bad speech is not censorshipor prosecution– but more speech.And so whatever you think about this controversy, it is clear that prosecuting Wikileaks would raise the mostfundamental questions about freedom of speech, about who is a journalist, and about what the public can knowabout the actions of its own government.Indeed, while everyone agrees that sometimes secrecy is necessary, the real problem today istoo much secrecy,not too little. In the
Pentagon Papers
case, Justice Potter Stewart put it “When everything is classified, nothing isclassified.” Rampant overclassification in the US system means that thousands of soliders, analysts, andintelligence officers need access to huge volumes of purportedly-classified material – and that necessary access inturn makes it impossible to effectively protect truly vital secrets.One of our panelists today, Mr. Blanton, put it perfectly in a recent radio appearance. He explained: “Our problemwith our security system and why a Bradley Manning can get his hands on all these cables is we got low fencesaround a vast prairie because the government classifies just about everything. When what we need are really highfences around a small graveyard of what's really sensitive.”
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 Furthermore, we are far too quick to accept government claims about risks to national security, and far too quick toforget the enormous value of some national security leaks.As to the harm caused, by these releases, all must agree that Defense Secretary Bob Gates is a pretty reliablesource. His assessment – “Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as ameltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought.”That’s his word: “overwrought.”Mr. Gates continued: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? Ithink fairly modest.”So the harm here – according to our Republican Defense Secretary – is “fairly modest”.And then on the other side of the ledger, there is no need to go all the way back to the Pentagon Papers to findexamples of national security leaks that were critical to stopping government abuses and preserving a healthydemocracy. They happen all the time:

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