Journalism, whistleblowing and the security state in Britain and the United States
US author and campaigner Norman Solomon writes on how British and US governments are assaulting freedom of the press by targetting journalists and whistleblowers.
EACH IN ITS own way, the British and US governments are assaulting freedom of the press. On one side of the Atlantic, officials insist on smashing a newspaper’s hard drives and proclaim that journalists are fair game for monitoring of their phone logs because “nobody should be above the law.”
On the other side of the ocean, the FBI uses what it calls National Security Letters to obtain journalists’ call records, while the US Department of Justice declares that a whistleblower’s disclosures “may be viewed as more pernicious than the typical espionage case where a spy sells classified information for money.”
Different styles, different laws, and very similar mentalities in high places. After we strip away the rhetoric and euphemisms, what’s left is unvarnished hostility toward independent journalism. That hostility reflects a keen understanding that investigative reporting and whistleblowing are vital to each other - and both are vital to the informed consent of the governed.
As my colleague Marcy Wheeler and I wrote last month in The Nation magazine ('The Government War Against Reporter James Risen'), governmental efforts to suppress whistleblowing are all about anti-democratic restrictions on the flow of information.
“The absurd pretense of merely wanting to ‘protect’ classified information hardly began with the Obama presidency. While publicly abhorring classified leaks, every administration in memory has dispensed large quantities of self-serving classified leaks - especially to journalists with compliant records of propagating authorized plants. But the customary gap between pretense and reality has grown into a canyon under Obama.”
With its claim that whistleblowing is apt to be worse than spying for a foreign power, we noted, the US government “implicitly views the people of the United States as a potential enemy force - to be deprived of key information - an outlook that treats whistleblowers as hostile agents.”
Authorities who want to stifle democracy take double-barreled aim at journalists and whistleblowers. Since publication of his 2006 book State of War - which included information about a dumb and dangerous CIA scheme that provided flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints to Iran - New York Times reporter James Risen has been under threat of imprisonment for refusing to testify against his alleged source, former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.
The indictment of Sterling includes seven counts under the 97-year-old Espionage Act, a favorite tool of the Obama government - which has used the Act nine times, far more often than all other administrations combined. In addition, many whistleblowers face protracted harassment and threats without ever being formally charged with a crime.
Consider this recent statement by New York Times reporter David Barstow, who has won the Pulitzer Prize three times:
“The relentless and by all appearances vindictive effort by two administrations to force Jim Risen into betraying his sources has already done substantial and lasting damage to journalism in the United States. I’ve felt the chill first hand. Trusted sources in Washington are scared to talk by telephone, or by email, or even to meet for coffee, regardless of whether the subject touches on national security or not. My fellow investigative reporters commiserate about how we’re being forced to act like drug dealers, taking extreme precautions to avoid leaving any digital breadcrumbs about where we’ve been and who we’ve met.”
For press freedom, grim parallel universes are festering in the United States and Great Britain. While British police officials insist that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) authorises the surveillance of journalists, the US Justice Department asserts “the longstanding common-law rule that reporters have no privilege to refuse to provide direct evidence of criminal wrongdoing by confidential sources.”
Amid such dire trends, public education and effective organizing are essential. The process needs to include building strong international coalitions and joint work among activists for freedom of the press.