Press Probes 'Obama's War On Leaks'

James RisenThe nation’s two leading press clubs convened experts on national security May 1 in Washington for a gripping, historically important assessment of the Obama administration’s shocking prosecutions of government news sources.

The administration took office on promises to protect whistle-blowers. But it has since repeatedly cracked down on leakers, citing the Espionage Act in six recent cases as a basis for criminal prosecution.

New York Times reporter James Risen has broken some of the most important national security stories of the decade. He was one of the panelists at the National Press Club, which organized the forum at its headquarters in cooperation with the New York-based Overseas Press Club. Risen has undergone years of financially damaging federal investigation and potential imprisonment for refusing to reveal his government sources.

“The fundamental issue,” said Risen, author of the path-breaking and still-indispensable 2006 book at right based on anonymous sources, “is whether you can have a democracy without aggressive reporting. I don’t think you can.”

More generally, the May 1 forum at the Press Club represented a significant commitment by Risen and others involved. Many in the political mainstream ignore the nation’s radical, ongoing cutbacks of historic constitutional rights. For fear of being branded as “soft on terror,” politicians from both major parties fear to examine emerging police-state practices on such matters as pervasive government wiretapping of ordinary citizens (as well as journalists) that would have deeply shocked the public before 9/11. Similarly, government-ordered torture, assassination, detention without charges, and vast waste in national security programs have been largely off-limits to congressional and other watchdog institutions. The exceptions are largely on a selective basis, typically to achieve talking points for short-term partisan purposes. Authorities have been reluctant to confirm (much less examine) drone warfare or the massive surveillance program of U.S. emails and phone calls, for example. But White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan this week publicly confirmed the drone program for the first time in an announcement whose timing complemented White House messaging on the anniversary of the bin Laden raid.

Reporters seeking to cover such matters face an especially daunting task. That’s because so much in the never-ending “war on terror” is now secret except what authorities want to announce for their own goals. We reported these trends in a series of columns last week, including DC News Workshop Preserves Lost Era of Press That Protected Public about the premiere of the Lewis-produced documentary.

Furthermore, reporters themselves are vulnerable to prosecution by government and to job cutbacks (including layoffs) because their employers serious financial setbacks. Downsizing of senior reporters who undertake in-depth reporting is a regular occurrence at many news organizations. A half dozen newspaper chains have closed their Washington bureaus in recent years, for example.

James BamfordAt the Press Club forum, co-panelist James Bamford, left, author of several authoritative books about the National Security Agency (NSA), supported Risen’s themes. His most recent is The Shadow Factory:The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. Bamford said federal investigations of reporters and government employees have had a “major chilling effect on sources.”

Several of the nation’s most courageous and effective government news sources victimized by prosecutions spoke from the audience. Former NSA executive Thomas Drake, for example, warned against the threat the Obama administration is posing to historic freedoms by continuing abusive prosecution tactics that the Bush administration began. “If we sacrifice liberty for the sake of security,” Drake said, “what do we have to defend?”

The Obama Justice Department has launched six high-profile criminal charges against employees or former employees widely regarded in the civil rights community as whistleblowers. One of the best-known is Drake, indicted on espionage charges after he disclosed an estimated $1.2 billion in waste by NSA involving its program to spy on U.S. citizens. Authorities retroactively classified non-classified documents to buttress their cases against Drake. But the case fell apart as both journalists and his trial judge examined the evidence. Instead of spending the rest of his life in prison as authorities originally sought, Drake pled last summer to a misdemeanor charge of "exceeding authorized use of a computer," a catch-all claim that the government could doubtless make against vast numbers of employees or contractors it might want to target. 

Lanny BreuerAt sentencing, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, a 2003 nominee of President Bush, spent the vast bulk of his time chastising the Justice Department. The judge protested DOJ's  “unconscionable” vendetta against Drake. DOJ's Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer, right, a former law partner of Attorney Eric Holder, helped manage the prosecution. It was led at the trial level by William Welch II. Welch was previously notorious for leading the DOJ Public Integrity Section's prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. DOJ had to vacate its 2008 Stevens convictions after the trial judge in that case became infuriated because the Justice Department team under Welch illegally suppressed evidence.

The Justice Department declined to send a representative to the Press Club panel. So, the organizers obtained as the best alternative former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller. Miller argued that the government cannot “look the other way” if employees and former employees divulge secrets, although he conceded that Drake appeared to be a genuine whistle-blower.

Bamford, a defense witness in the Drake case, argued that the government has played semantic games in Drake’s case and others. Drake, he said, was not charged with leaking documents but having them, and the documents were in the public domain. Bamford said he observed a similar situation whereby the NSA retroactively classified library documents after he cited them for a book. Bamford’s 1983 book, The Puzzle Palace, is widely credited with revealing to the public the NSA as an organization much larger and arguably at least as important as the CIA. The best-selling author’s latest book reveals how the agency ”increasingly turns its high-tech ears on the American public.”  

In 2006, Risen wrote State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. It expanded his 2005 expose with his New York Times colleague Eric Lichtblau revealing NSA’s massive, secret program in cooperation with the leading telecom companies to intercept and store for retrieval billions of emails and phone calls from ordinary United States citizens. NSA and the White House had secretly launched the program under the novel theory that, in essence, whatever the President wants in such matters is legal and private companies must cooperate in secret with federal authorities.

John M. Donnelly of Congressional Quarterly chair of the National Press Club’s press freedom committee, introduced the session along with Overseas Press Club President David A. Andelman, a former New York Times reporter who now edits the World Policy Journal. Andelman substituted as moderator at the last minute for ABC-TV correspondent Jake Tapper, who needed to cover the President’s speech about the new strategic agreement with Afghanistan. In February, Tapper questioned
White House spokesman Jay Carney on the administration's apparent double standard on reporting. Carney had praised the late foreign correspondents Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid because they died "in order to bring truth." Tapper questioned whether Carney believed "the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn't come out here."

Jesselyn Radack and Thomas DrakeWatching the May 1 forum were several other government targets aside from Drake whose careers were destroyed when they objected internally to what they regarded as illegal practices. One was former Justice Department ethics attorney Jesselyn Radack, whom the Justice Department pressured to resign in 2002 after she tried to correct internally  what she feared were false statements by DOJ to a trial judge. The judge required pre-trial documents about the torture and interrogation without counsel of John Walker Lyndh, an American citizen with a Taliban unit fighting an Afghanistan warlord in 2001. Radack this year published a gripping book about the case, Traitor: The Whistleblower and ‘American Taliban.' She now works for the Government Accountability Project, and took the lead in its effective representation of Drake, among other cases. They are portrayed at last year's Ridenhour Awards ceremony, where a panel gave Drake its prestigious annual prize for "Truth-Telling" on matters of national importance.

Also in the audience May 1 was John Kiriakou, 47, a former CIA chief of counter-terrorism in Pakistan. He opposed torture as an ABC-TV commentator and as the author of a 2010 memoir,
entitled The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror. The Justice Department indicted him last month on five felony charges. Drake commented at the Press Club forum about the irony: Kiriakou is the only American indicted for torture….”because he opposed it.”

Miller, the former Justice spokesman, disputed the characterization. He said the indictment was because Kiriakou outed the identity of a CIA covert operative. Furthermore, Miller said, the Justice Department’s oversight investigation finding no criminal wrongdoing by CIA personnel involved in interrogations or destruction evidence was by John Durham, whom Miller insisted was a universally respected prosecutor. During Q&A, I noted that the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed most charges in a major corruption case because of prosecution misconduct in a case Durham supervised. Miller responded that he had never heard of the appeals court sanction. The finding is summarized in New Questions Raised About Prosecutor Who Cleared Bush Officials in U.S. Attorney Firings, a story that I broke in 2010 on the Nieman Watchdog site.

Peter Van BurenAmong others in the audience asking questions were U.S. Department of State executive Peter Van Buren, left, whom the government ordered dismissed this year after he wrote the book, We Meant Well, documenting gross waste of taxpayer money in Iraq along with other failures he observed there on assignment. Van Buren suggested that it was "absurd" for the government to order its employees not to look at information on the Internet such as that published by WikiLeaks. Miller responded that the WikiLeaks documents lead at times to “bizarre” reactions by officials. Miller contended that United States must show its allies embarrassed by WikiLeaks that the United States cares enough pressure federal employees and contractors.

Risen, the New York Times reporter, several times restricted his comments because he faces a May 18 hearing before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia on
Valerie Plame Wilson the government’s effort to hold him in contempt of court for failure to testify against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer. Authorities accuse Sterling of leaking details about efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the subpoena against Risen. She said he is entitled to protect his sources and that the government had not shown that his testimony was needed to make the case.

Patrick FitzgeraldRisen said today's vulnerability of reporters to prosecution dragnets stems in significant part from the work of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, left, head of the Northern District office in Illinois. He was the Chicago-based special prosecutor who investigated the Bush White House leak to the media the covert status of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, shown at right on the cover her book, Fair Game. The leak by White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was to punish her family after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, failed to support White House arguments for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. President Bush commuted Libby's 30-month term.

Now, Risen said, many prosecutors seek to emulate Fitzgerald's success in forcing reporters to inform on their sources to federal authorities. A video of the complete forum is here.


Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment

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Charles LewisWashington Update: On the May 3 edition of my radio show, Washington Update, author and investigative reporter Charles Lewis discussed such matters and his new documentary film, Investigating Power. It portrays 26 of the nation's top investigative reporters covering sensitive issues the past half century. The film premiered last week. Lewis, at left, a national investigative journalist for more than 30 years, directs the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication. To listen, click here. His were the first two interview segments with co-host Scott Draughon and me. The show may be heard nationwide by archive. Mac users need “Parallels.”

Government Employees Standing Tall

Following the May 1 forum at the National Press Club reported above, four of the nation's leading whistle-blowers in the audience gathered for a photo made available here courtesy of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and its counsel Kathleen McClellan.They are, from left: Peter Van Buren of the U.S. Department of State, John Kiriakou, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, Jesselyn Radack, formerly of the Justice Department and now GAP director of National Security and Human Rights, and Thomas Drake, formerly of the National Security Agency.

Democracy Now! Exclusive – National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance, April 20, 2012. NSA whistleblower and GAP client William Binney appeared on Democracy Now! for a four-part series on the expanding national security and surveillance state. Binney, a crypto-mathematician, resigned from the NSA in protest over its domestic surveillance program in 2001. He was a key source for the recent exposé in Wired magazine about how the NSA is drastically expanding its surveillance.

Justice Integrity Project Columns

DC News Workshop Preserves Lost Era of Press That Protected Public, April 26, 2012. American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop this week premiered an impressive documentary illustrating observations about journalism by 26 of the most distinguished American reporters and editors of the past half century. The Workshop’s executive editor, Charles Lewis, presented excerpts of the film, Investigating Power, at the National Press Club in the nation’s capital on April 26. He then led a panel discussion for three of featured journalists, who responded to tough questions from him and the audience. Panelists Bill Kovach, Barry Sussman and Dana Priest brought vast experience, concern and wisdom to their comments. 

National Ridenhour Awards Honor Truth-Tellers, Patriots, April 26, 2012. Four patriots told their inspiring stories of civic service at an unusually compelling awards ceremony April 25 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The ninth annual Ridenhour Prizes went to four who are “fostering the spirit of courage and truth,” plus film-makers for, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.” Each speaker focused on a topic so important that it would be arbitrary to emphasize one over another. Better to list them in order of presentation and to recommend that readers see them on video. A free version of the 90-minute ceremony is posted on the Ridenhour site. The awards are named for the late Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran who in 1969 revealed the My Lai Massacre by United States forces. Each of this week's stories was a passionate, courageous call for justice.

BP, CIA, Edwards Cases Raise Selective Prosecution Questions, April 25, 2012. News stories about the Justice Department's criminal prosecutions regarding the BP oil disaster, the CIA, the John Edwards campaign prosecution each overlooked an obvious dimension: Why authorities select for prosecution certain individuals -- typically weak, wounded and without allies -- and avoid other obvious targets.

CIA Torture Investigator Plays Powerful But Mysterious Role, July 2, 2011. John Durham is the career federal prosecutor who made news June 30 when the Justice Department acted on his recommendation to narrow a probe of CIA mistreatment of detainees from 101 to two cases. Our Justice Integrity Project revealed last July that a federal appeals court found in 2008 serious misconduct by a team of federal prosecutors supervised by Durham. Thus, the 2008 Bush and then Obama administration appointments of Durham and his prominent Connecticut colleague, Nora Dannehy, to lead major national investigations of misconduct by other federal officials smacks of politics and whitewash.

DOJ Indictment of Former CIA Officer for Leak Raises Questions, April 9, 2012. The Justice Department last week indicted a former CIA officer and recent author on charges of leaking to reporters the name of a covert operative, part of an Obama administration crackdown on leakers. The five-count indictment April 6 accuses John C. Kiriakou, 47, an opponent of waterboarding, of crimes in connection with the capture of an alleged al Qaeda financier, Abu Zubaydah, in Pakistan.

World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2012

Barack ObamaStatement by the President on World Press Freedom Day (To be updated). May 3, 2011. On this May 3 as we observe World Press Freedom Day, we take time to honor those who promote and protect the freedom of expression, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives while giving voice to those who may not have the opportunity to express themselves freely -- including the journalists recently killed while bravely covering the crisis in Libya.

YouTube, video clips from the documentary Investigating Power film posted in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day:

, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Barry Sussman and Ben Bradlee reflect on The Washington Post reporting that uncovered the Watergate scandal and brought down a president.

. On November 12, 1969 reporter Seymour Hersh broke a shocking story about a massacre of hundreds of unarmed men, woman and children in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Hersh explains that the story started with an anonymous tip and led him to Fort Benning, Georgia where the Army was holding Lt. William Calley, an officer undergoing court martial proceedings for the killings.

. Murrey Marder remembers his reporting for The Washington Post that helped to unmask Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Other News

Guardian (United Kingdom), Murdoch facing new challenge as US senator contacts Leveson over hacking, Ed Pilkington and Lisa O'Carroll, May 3, 2012. Jay Rockefeller writes to British judge in bid to find out whether News Corporation has broken American laws. Rupert Murdoch's global media empire is facing a challenge on a new front in the billowing phone-hacking scandal after a powerful US Senate committee opened direct contact with British investigators in an attempt to find out whether News Corporation has broken American laws.

Michael CollinsOpEd News, Rupert Watch -- the Kiss of Death, Michael Collins, May 2, 2012.  When things don't work out, doing business with Murdoch can be the kiss of death. No matter how hard you try, how loyal you are, if something goes wrong, you can be sure it will be your fault. Reporting has failed to lay the proper foundation for understanding Rupert Murdoch's remarkable testimony before the Leveson Inquiry in London and his behavior of late. Rupert Murdoch is a nihilist. Murdoch's television outlets in the United States stoked the fires for the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on outrageous misrepresentations like the idea that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks....

Cutline, Dan Rather on George W. Bush report: ‘We reported a true story—that’s why I’m no longer with CBS News,’ Dylan Stableford, May 2, 2012. In an interview with Piers Morgan on Tuesday, Rather recalled the last conversation he had with George W. Bush after his controversial 2004 CBS News report on the former president's Air National Guard service record.  "I was at the White House for a briefing for reporters, and I asked him a couple of questions and he answered the questions," Rather said. "And then afterward he said to me, 'I hope you'll be happy retired in Austin.' That's my home. I had no intention of retiring in Austin. I have a passion for my work and I plunged myself back into doing work. But that's the only conversation I've had with him since." Rather also defended the report that led to the end of his network news career. "We reported a true story," he said. "That's why I'm no longer with CBS News."

Salon, Crime boasting for profit: Shielded from all forms of accountability, a CIA official is able to publish a book glorifying his illegal acts, April 25, 2012. On December 7, 2007, the New York Times reported that the CIA “in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency’s custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program.” Documents obtained when the ACLU asked a federal judge to hold the CIA in contempt of court — for destruction of evidence which that judge had ordered be produced — subsequently revealed that the agency had actually “destroyed 92 videotapes of terror-suspect interrogations.”

Washington Post, From ex-CIA official, blunt defense of harsh interrogation, Dana Priest, April 24, 2012. The first and only time I met Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., he was still undercover and in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency’s all-powerful operations directorate. The agency had summoned me to its Langley headquarters and his mission was to talk me out of running an article I had just finished reporting about CIA secret prisons — the “black sites” abroad where the agency put al-Qaeda terrorists so they could be interrogated in isolation, beyond the reach and protections of U.S. law. The scene I walked into in November 2005 struck me as incongruous. He was as surprised as anyone that he had risen so quickly to the senior ranks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to the account of his decades-long spy career in “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives.” The book is due out Monday, after an exclusive interview Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Huffington Post, Osama Bin Laden Raid Wasn't Based On CIA Torture Interrogations, Senators Say, Dan Froomkin, April 30, 2012. Two senators privy to classified information angrily dispute the claim by a former CIA official that the Bush administration's coercive interrogation techniques were effective and helped locate Osama bin Laden. Jose Rodriguez, former head of CIA clandestine services, told the Washington Post last week that he is “certain, beyond any doubt" that the techniques "approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government … shielded the people of the United States from harm and led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden." But senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement on Monday they were "deeply troubled" by Rodriguez's statements that the CIA"s "so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' used many years ago were a central component of our success," in finding the al Qaeda leader, killed by U.S. commandos in a raid in Pakistan a year ago Tuesday. This view is misguided and misinformed," the senators wrote. Feinstein's Senate Intelligence Committee has prepared a 500-page report that, according to Reuters, concludes that records from the Bush administration fail to support claims that torture was effective in stopping any terrorist attack.

Harper's / No Comment, Jose Rodriguez, Poster Boy, Scott Horton, May 1, 2012. Why did Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, destroy ninety-two tapes of interrogation sessions in which terrorism suspects were subjected to waterboarding and other torture techniques? On Sunday, Lesley Stahl put the question to him on 60 Minutes, and he provided an answer:

Rodriguez: To protect the people who worked for me and who were at those black sites and whose faces were shown on the tape.

Stahl: Protect them from what?

Rodriguez: Protect them from Al Qaeda ever getting their hands on these tapes and using them to go after them and their families.

Rodriguez’s claims don’t stand up. Tapes are released with some regularity by the government, and when they are, the identities of any Americans shown in them are almost always obscured—in fact, U.S. law would generally require that this be so. So his first concern hardly makes sense. His second, that the interrogators would become Al Qaeda targets, is similarly a stretch, not only because their identities would not be disclosed, but because of the clear success of the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda. The terrorist organization has been decimated; it is now struggling from the margins against extinction. And even if it were in a position to strike, low- or mid-level CIA interrogators would hardly be high on its list of targets.

Sibel_Edmonds_CoverFireDogLake, Sibel Edmonds Finally Wins, David Swanson, April 30, 2012. Sibel Edmonds’ new book, Classified Woman, is like an FBI file on the FBI, only without the incompetence. The experiences she recounts resemble K.’s trip to the castle, as told by Franz Kafka, only without the pleasantness and humanity. I’ve read a million reviews of nonfiction books about our government that referred to them as “page-turners” and “gripping dramas,” but I had never read a book that actually fit that description until now. The F.B.I., the Justice Department, the White House, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the nonprofit industrial complex put Sibel Edmonds (at right) through hell. This book is her triumph over it all, and part of her contribution toward fixing the problems she uncovered and lived through.

Salon, Climate of Fear: Jim Risen v. the Obama administration. Glenn Greenwald, June 23, 2011. NYT reporter Jim Risen says Obama's actions "will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press in the U.S." The Obama DOJ’s effort to force New York Times investigative journalist Jim Risen to testify in a whistleblower prosecution and reveal his source is really remarkable and revealing in several ways; it should be receiving much more attention than it is.  On its own, the whistleblower prosecution and accompanying targeting of Risen are pernicious, but more importantly, it underscores the menacing attempt by the Obama administration — as Risen yesterday pointed out — to threaten and intimidate whistleblowers, journalists and activists who meaningfully challenge what the government does in secret.

AlterNet, Bush Torture Memo Author John Yoo Granted Legal Immunity, Steven Rosenfeld, May  2012. A federal appeals court has granted legal immunity to former Bush Administration Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo for writing Justice Department  memos between 2001 and 2003 that gave the White House legal cover to torture alleged enemy combatants, including citizens taken in the war on terrorism. The ruling by a three-judge panel on the California-based Ninth Circuit found that there were no specific constitutional prohibitions against using the torture techniques at the time that Yoo drafted the memos while working at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.


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Ridenhouse Prizes


Andy Breslau, Nation's Institute President and Co-Sponsor of the Ridenhour Prizes

We have put up some photographs of the ninth annual Ridenhour Prizes, which you can see by clicking here. We also have videos of the introducers' and winners' speeches, which are available on the individual winner pages: Rep. John LewisEileen Foster, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, Ali H. Soufan and the film, Semper Fi: Always Faithful. Please feel free to share them on Facebook or Twitter, or to email them to your friends. Lastly, if you didn't have a chance to make a contribution to The Ridenhour Prizes and wish to donate now, you can do so online or by sending a check — just click here for instructions.


Randy Fertel, Fertel Foundation President and Ridenhour Prizes Co-Sponsor
We remember Ron Ridenhour's heroic life as both a whistleblower and an investigative reporter, and we honor those who pursue truth in the relentless way that Ron did. The paradox of whistleblowers is this: They are thought of as heroes and treated as villains. Speaking truth to power, whistleblowers are crucial to the health of a free society and inevitably troublesome to the powerful. In a democracy, whistleblowing is one of the unlegislated checks and balances. Or, if investigative journalism serves an open society as a fourth estate, watchdogging the activities of the other three, then whistleblowers are a kind of fifth estate.