By Karin Fleming
Bill Keller. Judith Miller. Jack Anderson. These are a few of the journalists who have been criticized, prosecuted or questioned by the federal government in the last year. Countless others have been affected by the policies enacted by the current administration. According to the 2006 Secrecy Report Card from OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of open government advocates, this administration has reached extraordinary levels of secrecy in regards to their policies and decisions.
“Based on constitutional law, you have to make a pretty overwhelming case even for national security to be a reason to withhold information from the public,” said Sal Paolantonio, an Emmy-award winning journalist who has been working in the field for over a decade. “The founding fathers wanted a free exchange of information so that the citizens would be best informed. The bottom line is that no one has the power to tell us what is or isn’t for our own good.”
Over the past two years, 30 journalists have been subpoenaed or questioned about confidential sources. Last March the Bush Administration launched initiatives seeking to limit leaks of classified information, which target journalists and possible government sources.
This came in the wake of the prosecution of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller. In October 2004 a federal judge determined that Judith Miller, formerly a reporter for the New York Times, was in contempt of court for not revealing her anonymous source during an investigation into a leak of a CIA operative’s identity. This ruling was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals in June 2005 and Miller subsequently spent 85 days in prison. She was released only after she agreed to disclose the identity of her source to a grand jury.
“The federal government is trying to turn back the clock,” said Paolantonio. “It’s also a case, and we see this more and more, of lazy prosecutors relying on reporter’s work to prove their cases.”
Soon after the launch of these initiatives, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller found himself in a compromising position with the Bush Administration. The newspaper published information regarding a secret program designed to track the international financial transactions of terrorists. This was met with fierce objection from the Administration. The president called reporting “disgraceful” and officials in the White House threatened to prosecute the journalists responsible for the article under the Espionage Act. This could result in jail time and the closure of the newspaper.
However, Keller defended his decision in an open letter published in the New York Times.
“The people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.”
Historically, the New York Times has clashed with presidents on numerous occasions. During the Nixon Administration, the White House fought the newspaper to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified document that analyzed the Vietnam War. This case was brought before the Supreme Court, which upheld the first amendment and ruled in favor of the journalists.
Today it is unclear whether or not the Supreme Court, if prompted, would follow this precedent.
Investigative journalism faces many challenges post-September 11. The policies of the Bush Administration have made it increasingly difficult to access government information, and the public use of the Freedom of Information Act continues to rise as more documents are being marked as classified. The Secrecy Report Card states that FOIA requests have risen to over 19 million in 2005, a 43 percent increase since 2002. The typical wait for a response ranges from three months to four years.
“Every administration wants to control information about its policies and practices, but the current administration has restricted access to information about our government and its policies at unprecedented levels,” Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said in an Associated Press article.
Since 1966, the Freedom of Information Act has protected the public’s right to gain access to government documents. During the Clinton administration, a federal agency that received a request had to identify actual harm if the document was released. They even were told to release documents the FOIA did not require to make public.
This policy was reversed a month after Sept. 11 by the Ashcroft Memo. The memo, written by Attorney General John Ashcroft, states “when you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records… you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records.”
Furthermore, while the numbers of newly classified documents decreased in 2005 from the previous year, an average of six million more documents a year weremarked as classified when compared to the previous administration.
Representative Henry Waxman (D-Cali) stated that “under the Bush administration, the American people have been subjected to a double-standard on classified information.” He says that while the administration “aggressively attacks” leaks of classified information, they also ignore leaks from within the White House, especially if they promote political gain.
Waxman and other Democratic members of the Government Reform Committee say they are fighting to restore “honest[y] and accountability” in the government. Their proposals include the protection of federal whistleblowers, restoring open government and banning secret meetings with lobbyists.
In addition, members of the Senate are pushing legislation that would give some additional protections to journalists, beyond those of the First Amendment.
Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn), said in a speech introducing the Free Flow of Information Act 2006 to the Senate, “Nothing – nothing – is more important to a free people than the free flow of information. An informed citizenry is the first requirement of self-governance.”
While 31 states have laws that protect the newsgathering process, a federal law does not exist. If it is enacted, news gatherers would be protected from unjustified subpoenas. Currently, the legislation is stalled in committee.
These events and policies that have been implemented by the Bush Administration are cause for concern within the media industry. Has press freedom begun to deteriorate in the U.S.?
The 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, an annual report by Reporters Without Borders, suggests that it has. Since the index’s creation in 2002, the United States has slipped from 17 to 53 out of 168 countries.
The report states “relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of ‘national security’ to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his ‘war on terrorism.’ The zeal of federal courts which…refuse to recognize the media’s right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.”
These notions have become symbolic of these trends in the FBI’s attempt to search the archives of Jack Anderson.
Anderson, who passed away last year after a battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was an investigative journalist in Washington D.C. from the 1950’s until his official retirement in 2001. He was a key figure in controversies such as a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his reports which claimed the Nixon Administration tilted toward Pakistan in its war with India. Roughly a month after his death, the FBI attempted to search his archives, which is in the process of being donated to George Washington University.
“They first contacted my mom about a month after my dad passed away. An agent just called her out of the blue and said she wanted to talk to her,” said Kevin Anderson, one of Jack Anderson’s nine children. “I think they were rather vague about it.”
The FBI told the family, who still retain ownership of the files, their request was related to an ongoing investigation into a criminal case against two pro-Israel lobbyists. The lobbyists, who were former employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were investigated for receiving classified information.
“I think they were stretching it a little bit,” said Anderson, noting that his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the mid-90’s and, at the time of the AIPAC scandal, was writing very little. “Anything that he would have in his files that would relate to anything they would be interested in would be awfully old and really of no relevance to any current investigation.”
Anderson said that despite attempts to bargain with the agents - such as hiring an independent third party to go through the files and retrieve documents during the relative time period - they insisted on going through all 188 boxes. In addition, the FBI maintained that if, during their search, they discovered any classified documents they would be obligated to seize them, since a private citizen is barred from possessing secured documents which were illegally provided to them.
“It was more then a little bit underhanded,” said Anderson. “The scary part of all this is that they would harass a reporter after he’s passed away, harass his widow to try to get access to his papers for some more political then national security purpose.”
The Anderson family sent a letter to the FBI denying their request to go through the files this past April. Since then, the FBI has not attempted to search the files or contact the family.
“What they were really after was trying to whitewash these papers before they were made public,” said Anderson.
The attempt of the federal government to essentially alter history by removing decade-old files from a deceased reporter’s archives is a step back to the Watergate era, said Anderson.
Sal Paolantonio agreed with this perspective in a speech given at Temple University last October.
“This president, this administration in Washington, is attempting to turn back the clock, attempting to re-enact the rogue, imperial presidency of Richard Nixon. And it must be stopped. George W. Bush’s attacks on the first amendment are abhorrent, immoral and unconstitutional.”
Karin Fleming is a sophomore journalism major who enjoys free speech, free love, and free beer. Email her at email@example.com.