IS Peter Arnett guilty of treason?
This is a perfectly serious question.
Arnett, who was fired by NBC and National Geographic on Monday, is a citizen of the United States. The United States is in a state of war with Iraq - an official war, authorized by the Congress of the United States. That makes Iraq an official enemy of the United States.
Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States defines treason thus: "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."
The question is whether Arnett's comments on Iraqi state-run television, a propaganda arm of Saddam Hussein's regime, constitute "aid and comfort" to the enemy.
If you analyze his remarks strictly as a matter of rhetoric, the answer is unambiguously: YES. Arnett used his time on Iraqi television to praise the Iraqi government and people in a way that might stiffen their resolve and lead them to hunker down against allied forces. Certainly, in a 21st-century context, his words were a "comfort" at the very least.
Arnett: "Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments."
In other words, Arnett is telling the Iraqis that his reporting "about civilian casualties . . . helps those who oppose the war." Opposing the war is not a crime, to be sure. Nor is providing information that helps those who oppose the war. But by telling the government and people of Iraq that opposition to the war is growing and that his reports might help that along, Arnett was clearly suggesting that he was helping them with their war goals.
More Arnett: "Clearly this is a city that is disciplined, the population is responsive to the government's requirements of discipline . . . Iraqi friends tell me there is a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to what the United States and Britain is doing." His reports from Baghdad, he said, "would tell the Americans about the determination of the Iraqi forces, the determination of the government and the willingness to fight for their country."
Now, it seems clear that the drafters of the Constitution probably meant those words to refer to specific "aid and comfort," like financial support and the housing and feeding of enemy forces. But the matter has been viewed otherwise in the recent past.
In 1949, a U.S. citizen named Iva Toguri was convicted of treason following World War II for broadcasting Japanese propaganda over the radio in English to demoralize American troops in the Pacific Theater. The treason for which she was convicted read as follows: "She did speak into a microphone concerning the loss of ships."
Toguri was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1976 when questions were raised about the fairness of her prosecution and real questions about whether she had ever served as one of the voices in English that came to be known as "Tokyo Rose."
But the pardon did not call into question the idea that an American broadcasting propaganda on enemy radio ought to be considered a traitor.
Certainly there can be no question about the constitutional standard of proof about the event: "No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court." There have been millions upon millions of witnesses to Arnett's perfidy, to his everlasting shame.
Of course, the U.S. government will never attempt to try Peter Arnett. If he were to be charged with treason, reporters and news organizations everywhere would rise up to declare him a martyr.
That's because of the bizarre notion that because people make their living by interviewing other people and delivering information to the masses, they are in some way released from their obligations as citizens of the nations in which they live. Their obligation is not to their countrymen but to "Truth" - as they define it.
This view is most comically expressed by the proud declaration of civic non-participation by Leonard Downie, the editor of The Washington Post. Downie says that he simply doesn't vote - because to vote would be to challenge his own objective approach to the news.
Taken to an extreme, Downie's view is Arnett's view. He is more than a citizen of the United States. He is a revealer of truths to the world. And he will do so where, when and how he chooses.
Over the weekend, Arnett made a choice that was, quite literally, criminal.