Saturday, 21 January 2017

Frontal Assault on Freedom of the Press

The Bush administration is the first in history to launch a direct assault on journalists for violating the Espionage Act by releasing or publishing leaks of classified information. Although Congress originally passed the Espionage Act to prosecute government employees who divulge classified information to a foreign nation, it is now extended to reporters for doing their job — informing the public of our government wrongdoing, including breaking the law.

In times of war or anticipated war, our nation’s leaders supported by much of the populace have been too willing to surrender the First Amendment — our fundamental rights at the heart of democracy — for the illusion of greater security. Our civil liberties have been most endangered precisely when they should have been most protected to prevent our leaders from persecuting ordinary citizens.

In 1798, Congress passed the first federal Sedition Act to prosecute members of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party who challenged President John Adams’ Federalist policies. In World War I, the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act were enacted to silence opposing views from political dissenters, pacifists, and labor radicals. Not one single traitor was found in more than 2,000 cases. In World War II, about 112,000 to 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans were relocated and confined to internment camps. The U.S. government eventually issued a public apology and doled out financial retribution to survivors and their descendants. In the early 1950s, congressional McCarthyism fueled the “red scare” — myth of communist governmental infiltration — by conducting “witch-hunts” for communist sympathizers.

Before 9/11 attacks, immigrants working and residing in America enjoyed the protection of the Bill of Rights as much as American citizens. However, under the 2001 USA Patriot Act, the government arrested and detained Arab and Muslim non-citizens, deporting or incarcerating hundreds of people on immigration violations and arresting more than a dozen “material witnesses” without charge of any crime. According to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. government is violating the Constitution and federal law by whisking away 1,000 people as detainees without releasing their names or their locations. Congress has just renewed the Patriot Act in March 2006 to continue the battle of the illusory "war on terror."

The erosion of Bill of Rights has now emboldened the Bush administration to attack press freedom. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, as emphasized in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights: "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments."

The media’s sole obligation lies squarely with the public’s right to know. The utmost duty of a journalist should be to pursue the truth. Reporters who use their professional status for self-serving purposes at the expense of those whom they serve violate a trust. As carriers of public information, the media acts as a conduit for the whistleblower to alert the public of government wrongdoing.

Such reports as uranium purchase forgery that drove U.S. to Iraq war, prisoner tortures, secret CIA prisons, warrantless surveillance, and other topics have prompted the Bush administration to plug the leaks at the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies. The aggressive efforts to suppress leaks on federal employees include FBI probes, polygraph tests and warning letters from the Justice Department prohibiting discussion of classified issues. For George Bush to claim that leaks have endangered the nation during a time of war doesn’t conceal the fact that he and his minions have consistently violated our constitutional laws in conducting his war.

In the New York Times, the CIA director Porter Goss asserts that the "Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA) was enacted to ensure that current or former employees could petition Congress, after raising concerns within their respective agency, consistent with the need to protect classified information." However, to submit a petition to Congress requires an approval from an agency’s head that might not want Congress to hear the allegations of wrongdoing. Another obstacle lies in neither the House nor Senate Intelligence Committees are "cleared enough" to hear closed testimony of NSA’s classified information.

Worse still, a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on December 30, 2005 concluded that national security whistleblowers are unprotected. Cases in point: Russell Tice, a former intelligence officer at the NSA, charged that "illegalities and unconstitutional activity" operated in the 'special-access programs' (domestic eavesdropping without warrants); Mike German, a former FBI agent, reported records were falsified to cover-up mishandling of a major counterterrorism case in 2002; and Richard Levernier, a retired senior Department of Energy nuclear security specialist, testified that America’s nuclear weapons sites showed a 50 percent failure rate to defend against a terrorist attack. Those courageous employees who had spoken out and followed the chain of command for reporting wrongdoing suffered retaliation for disclosing the truth.

It’s no wonder that federal employees would rather leak vital government wrongdoing to the media than face ruin careers. More importantly, acting as whistleblowers, they are patriots serving the American people by informing the public of our government malfeasance.

The irony of it all, Special Council Patrick Fitzgerald is now investigating the same issue on the Bush administration — leaking sensitive classified information on a former CIA agent, Valerie Plame. In October 2005, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, was indicted on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about how he became aware of Plame's CIA status and what he told the reporters.

In his defense for outing a CIA agent, Libby testified to a federal grand jury that Cheney and his "superiors" had authorized him to leak classified information, before and after the start of Iraq war in making the case for the U.S. invasion. Lawyers for Libby have subpoenaed several news reporters to testify again on how much they knew about the Plame’s undercover CIA status before her identity was publicly exposed. Libby’s trial will be held in January 2007.

Even if Libby could clear himself from being the first one to leak Plame’s identity, he has, nevertheless, committed a series of criminal offenses — obstruction of justice, lying to a federal grand jury, and more significantly, leaking classified information to drive U.S. to war with Iraq.

The Plamegate case was quite clear: a serious crime was committed — the law was broken to expose an undercover CIA agent, jeopardizing our national security. The New York Times former reporter, Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days to protect her sources. Miller’s protection of a government source that was suspected of committing a national security crime is definitely not the same as a journalist's obligation to protect a federal whistleblower revealing government wrongdoing. Like any journalist, Miller is bound to serve the public welfare. Any sound journalist could see that Miller was abetting a national security crime by withholding pertinent information to a criminal investigation. Fitzgerald understood that difference well enough to throw her in jail.

The Justice Department now applies the Espionage Act against journalists and their possible government sources, not to silence dissension like in the past — but to hide the criminal activities of the Bush administration. In reality, this administration wants to continue breaking the laws and violate our constitutional rights. By smothering freedom of the press, the Neocons would be one step closer to turning the United States into a dictatorship.

(First published on, April 1, 2006)