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Finding a balance between press freedom and national security

Journalist James Risen shocked the audience at the “Secrets and Sources” conference in New York by claiming that Obama’s administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”
By Gabriela Esquivada, from the US
For The Herald in the US

At New York conference, journalists question justification for government surveillance

NEW YORK — On Sunday, former US President Jimmy Carter endorsed the public postal service, USPS. He did not intend to do so: he was just explaining why he mistrusts other forms of exchanging messages.”I have felt that my communications are probably monitored,” Carter told NBC’s interviewer Andrea Mitchell. “And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write a letter myself, put it in the post office and mail it. I believe if I send an email, it will be monitored.”

Peter Maas, senior writer at The Intercept (co-founded by one of Edward Snowden’s chosen journalists for his National Security Agency leaks, Glenn Greenwald), said something similar on Friday at the “Sources and Secrets” conference, organized by City University of New York (CUNY) and The New York Times. “Months ago, somebody contacted me through a friend to talk about something not monumental, but interesting. ‘Don’t send it to me by email,’ I asked. ‘Print it out and send it to this address,’” he summarized. He never received the envelope with the information: “Either it was intercepted or never sent out.”

James Risen opened the meeting which presented five panels in five hours: “The Long Arm of the Law”, on the Espionage Act; “Perils of Covering National Security”, on the difficulty of protecting confidential sources; “The Snowden Revelation”, which presented via Skype three journalists who could hardly enter the US without risking some kind of detention; “Prospects for a Federal Shield Law”, which would protect journalist’ privilege to guard sources’ identities; and “Where Do We Go from Here”, a discussion about balancing press freedom and national security.

Risen shocked the audience by claiming that US President Barack Obama’s administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.” In his opinion, there is “a de facto Official Secrets Act.”

He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. The second time he received it in 2006, for his coverage of former President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping, he was subpoenaed — not his first time — to reveal sources of his book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. He could choose between betraying his promise of confidentiality or being in contempt. Risen appealed to the Supreme Court, but if the case is not accepted, he will have to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer accused of leaking information, or remain silent and go to jail.

In October 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recapped: “Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press — compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous US administrations.”

There are constitutional issues at stake. The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” And the Fourth establishes “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But whistleblowers are prosecuted under the Espionage Act and the post 9/11 Patriot Act. And if the phones of Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff were monitored by the US, journalists can count on being surveilled. Like Mr. Carter.

Another CPJ report quotes William Binney, a star mathematician that quit NSA after 30 years repulsed by what he considered “mass privacy violations.” Binney believes that the US government has a record of all reporters, “so they can look at who they’re calling, who are the potential sources that they’re involved in, what probable stories they’re working on.” Journalists are “a much easier, smaller target set” to spy on, he said to Jeffrey King, author of the CPJ’s The NSA Puts Journalists Under a Cloud of Suspicion.

Famed journalist Bob Woodward moderated a panel on the chilling effect of the government actions: “Sources are under more pressure,” Jane Mayer (The New Yorker) said. “One of them was investigated during Bush’s administration for speaking to me: my cellphone number was among his calls. We get them in trouble when we don’t mean to.” Mark Mazzetti (The New York Times) agreed and winked at the man of the Watergate scandal: “You have to be more careful with e-communication and telephone. You meet at parking garages... When you are a reporter and want someone to be comfortable, you cannot start ‘Hi, we have to use these phones or you will go to jail.’ I use encrypted communication. I don’t know if I should say it.”

Robert L. Deitz, who served as general counsel for NSA and aide to the CIA director, seemed to think he should not. Woodward asked: “Is it incriminating?,” and Deitz said: “Yes.” Freelance writer Norton Quinn, originally a technology reporter, was waiting to participate at the following panel, on the shield law. She tweeted: “Deitz (NSA) confirms the switch to encryption is a red flag for ‘criminality.’” #encryptallthethings.’ Later she would argue: “At this point anything can be national security and everything is technology. Categories have become very muddy.” That is why she insisted: “Encryption is my norm.”

In the last discussion, about the need of finding a balance between national security and press freedom, Robert S. Litt, general counsel to the director of National Intelligence, requested “a little more humility from the press.” The Nation editor Katrina vandenHeuvel was outraged: “The idea of humility when it comes to the press at this moment is obscene,” she said. Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, added: “I’m squirming over the desire that we have more humility. There are excruciating decisions to make when you get the request from the government not to publish due to national security.” She offered the example of the paper’s decision to postpone for more than a year President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programme.

Litt was asked about a press piece that had actually hurt someone in the last decade. He could not name one; instead, he offered a comparison: “We ban drunk driving in this country because it increases accidents. Not every drunk driver causes a fatal accident. In the same way, we classify information because of the risk of harm.” New Yorker editor David Remnick, about to laugh, asked him: “Is journalism drunk driving?”

At a similar symposium that took place almost three years ago in The Aspen Institute Wye River Conference Center, the viewpoints — although less glitzy — were more or less the same. And the conclusions about the way were alike, with a shield law.

“It is hard for me to know whether or not I have already given up my sources,” said Quinn in New York last Friday. And Lucy Dalglish, now dean of the University of Maryland Journalism School, blogged in 2011 the lines that a national security representative told journalists in Maryland: “We’re not going to subpoena reporters in the future. We don’t need to. We know who you’re talking to.”

@gesq

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