“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.”
At 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.
At 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.”
Watching 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, [Artwork “Journalism With A Heart” by @SomersetBean]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.
Among 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 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.