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Blogs > There's No There There > How Much Freedom for Journalists?

Nov 3, 2014 10:15 am


How Much Freedom for Journalists?

tags: Washington Post;NY times; David Sanger;Dana Priest;Murray Polner



How Much Freedom for Journalists?

By Murray Polner:

F or far too long it was Edward Snowden, Snowden, Snowden, and Snowden everywhere, at least in spyworld, euphemistically dubbed our “Intelligence Community,” which in spite of its longtime claims of success, once famously misread the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of the Arab Spring, et.al.. Now, I’ve taken the trouble to re-readEric Schmitt’s Times front page article, anonymously sourced, “CIA Noted Its Suspicions Over Snowden. Red Flags Overlooked 4 Years Before Leaks.” Schmitt’s comprehensive piece about the CIA’s failure to spot and report Snowden’s alleged problems also carried coverage of the four American whistleblowers (ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Jesselyn Radack formerly of the Justice Department, Coleen Rowley who once was an FBI agent and former NSA official Thomas Drake) who  haveawarded Snowden in Moscow what they called the Sam Adams award which, in McGovern’s words, was for his “decision to divulge secrets about the NSA’s electronic surveillance of Americans and people round the globe.”

Still, the issue goes well beyond Snowden’s contributions, which raised the question: How much freedom shall American journalists be allowed [my italics] by their government to publish stories critics say may cause great harm to “national security.”

Some words of warning of what reporters now face and what may lie ahead has just been provided by a surprising new report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Written by Leonard Downie Jr.,(assisted by Sara Rafsky) who once ran the Washington Post, DC’s preeminent establishment newspaper, it quotes among others, David Sanger, the Times’ chief Washington correspondent, who charged that the Obama White House is “the most closed control-freak administration I’ve ever covered,” an accusation backed, he continued, by “a memo [that] went out from the chief of staff a year ago to White House employees and the intelligence agencies that told people to freeze and retain any e-mail, and presumably phone logs, of communications with me.” Consequently, long-term sources were afraid to talk with him. “They tell me, ‘David, I love you, but don’t e-mail me. Let’s don’t chat until this blows over.” His colleague Scott Shane also told Downie, that “seemingly innocuous e-mails not containing classified information can be construed as a crime.” They’re echo by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest. “People think they’re looking at reporters’ records. I’m writing fewer things in e-mail. I’m even afraid to tell officials what I want to talk about because it’s all going into one giant computer.”

While not Chinese, Russian or Saudi Arabian media censors, Obama’s continual use of the 1917 Espionage Act and its Insider Threat Program, which demands federal workers report colleagues’ suspicious behavior, and led Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA and CIA for the second Bush, to tell Downie that the ITP “is designed to chill any conversation whatsoever.”

It may be that Obama has been facing demands from Congress and intelligence agencies to stop national security leaks but if so, he has certainly given into their pressure. The result is what Downie’s report described as a “fearful atmosphere” among Washington-based reporters, including Times people.  Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal gave it a good play, posting the AP dispatch “Report: Obama brings chilling effect on journalism.”

The question of press freedom also cropped up in The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson’s perceptive article “When Journalists Are Called Traitors.” In it, she recalled the 1962 Der Spiegel scandal when Konrad Adenauer and his Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss falsely charged the magazine with endangering German national security, using the words traitors and treason, once among the older Germany’s kindest words for its opponents, even Jewish kids. The publisher was jailed for a hundred and three days and several others were imprisoned as well. Police were stationed in Spiegel’s offices before charges were dropped and Strauss let go. Davidson’s lesson: “the strands connecting the Spiegel and Snowden affairs are many and instructive—and are a reminder, above all, of why press freedom is worth fighting for.”

Relating it to the storm around Snowden, and praising the CPJ report, Davidson asked if it was a journalists’ job to publish pieces that the government considered secret and potentially damaging. How dare they place their judgments above government priorities and secrets? Documents are secret for state reasons, critics say, and have to be obeyed. Her response: “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.”

Not to be outdone, our ever loyal British allies in war and peace are very upset about Snowden’s leaks. Its conservative officials have been sneering at the leakers and the Guardian. The M15 chief Andrew Parker defended its Tempora program (similar to the NSA’s Prism, divulged by Snowden) without saying anything specific about the sort of data collected. He called Snowden’s tapes, which had appeared in the Guardian, a “gift” to terrorists. Soon after, the conservative Daily Mail snarled that the Guardian was “The Paper That Helps Britain’s Enemies.” Not to be outdone, and more ominously because Britain has no Bill of Rights, PM David Cameron accused the Guardian of harming national security, even suggesting, however vaguely and never followingthrough, that the paper’s editor be called before Parliament.

About the same time  ex-Times editor Jill Abramson was interviewed by British TV interviewer Jeremy Paxman who asked why her newspaper had turned down a British request that it give them documents based on Snowden’s information. Abramson, a very experienced journalist, remembered the uproar about the Pentagon Papers and read him some history: “When the New York Times published the Pentagon papers back in the 1970s, the same claims were made, that publishing did grave harm to national security, and yet a couple of years after we published them, the same officials who said that admitted that actually there had not been any real harm to national security.” Perhaps now the paper will talk about and analyze Downie’s report.

Sooner or later, and the sooner the better, the question how to cover honestly and fearlessly critical matters of national security needs to be resolved. Any resolution will need to keep the First Amendment in mind since accountability is essential. That’s still a part of democracy, right? Failure to do so, the CPJ report concludes:

“With so much government information digitally accessible in so many places to so many people, there are likely to be more Mannings and Snowdens among those who grew up in a digital world with blurred boundaries between public and private, shared and secret information. That makes access by the press to a range of government sources of information and guidance more important than ever.”

Downie then turned to Lucy Dalglish of the  valuable Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, for steps the Obama administration might take to fulfill the president’s campaign pledge of transparency, Downie summarized her suggestions: “fewer secrets, improve the FOIA process, be open and honest about government surveillance and build better bridges with the press, rather than trying to control or shut it out.”

Fair warning. For Obama’s remaining two years and his successor, whoever he or she may be.y




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