Attacks on the Press 2005: United States


An investigation into the leak of a CIA officer’s identity erupted,
with one reporter compelled to testify about his confidential source, another jailed for 85 days before she testified, and a high-level White House aide indicted on federal charges of perjury, false statements, and obstruction of justice. Confidentiality of sources was under attack in a number of other U.S. cases as well. In New Orleans, authorities restricted media access and harassed journalists in several incidents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And in Washington, D.C., federal auditors concluded that the Bush administration had broken the law by disseminating “covert propaganda.”

New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed in July for refusing to disclose information about a confidential source before a federal grand jury investigating the 2003 leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Wilson. (Wilson was first identified by her maiden name of Valerie Plame in a July 2003 column by syndicated writer Robert Novak.) Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, who was under subpoena and on the verge of imprisonment, testified in July after he said he received a personal waiver from his source, Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Miller agreed in September to testify under limited conditions after receiving what she described as a voluntary and personal waiver from the same source. The grand jury indicted Libby a month later for allegedly lying about his role in the leak. He was not charged directly with identifying the CIA officer; instead, the government alleged that Libby lied to investigators and the grand jury about what he told reporters and how he learned the CIA officer’s identity. Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, remained under investigation. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald convened a new grand jury in November, shortly after Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward acknowledged to investigators in a sworn deposition that he had received information about Wilson’s wife in June 2003.

Miller, Cooper, and other journalists could be called as witnesses if the case against Libby or any other defendant goes to trial.

CPJ denounced Miller’s jailing, saying it sent the wrong message to the world. Regimes in Venezuela, Cameroon, Nepal, and Egypt cited the imprisonment to justify repressive measures in their own nations. Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced bills to establish a federal “shield” law to protect journalists from revealing confidential sources. But the measures, which echo laws already on the books in more than 30 states, did not advance toward passage during the year. Miller herself became the focus of controversy as other journalists and her own colleagues questioned how much she had disclosed to her editors as the case proceeded. Miller defended her actions but resigned from The Times in November.

Miller was not the only U.S. journalist confined in 2005. Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter with the NBC-owned WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., was released in April after serving four months of home confinement for refusing to identify the person who gave him an FBI surveillance tape. A federal judge imposed home confinement rather than jail because of Taricani’s heart condition.

The year ended with two major stories built on confidential government sources. In November, The Post reported that the CIA operated secret prisons in foreign countries. The next month, The Times exposed a secret government program to eavesdrop without warrants on certain phone and e-mail conversations. The prison revelation prompted an international uproar, and the eavesdropping disclosure prompted Congressional outcry. At the same time, the confidential sources themselves came under government scrutiny, raising the possibility of new confrontations over free press issues. The Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into the sources for the eavesdropping story; the CIA asked the department to probe the prison story as well.

In a high-profile civil case, judges continued to demand that reporters disclose their confidential sources. In November, a federal judge held Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus in contempt for refusing to name his sources in a lawsuit filed against the government by Wen Ho Lee. The former U.S. nuclear scientist, who was suspected but cleared of espionage charges, alleges in his lawsuit that government officials illegally leaked his personnel files to the press. The same month, an appellate court refused to consider an appeal from four other reporters previously held in contempt in the case.

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf states on August 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged news organizations not to photograph dead bodies. Numerous bodies were left in public areas for days after the hurricane amid a government recovery effort that was widely criticized for being slow and ineffective. The Washington Post reported that in at least one instance state authorities echoed the demand not to photograph the dead.

New Orleans police adopted an aggressive stance in several reported cases. On September 1, city police ripped a camera from the neck of Lucas Oleniuk of the Toronto Star and removed the camera’s memory cards, robbing the photographer of more than 350 images. The seized images included “officers delivering a fierce beating to two suspects,” the Toronto Star reported. The same day, Gordon Russell of the New Orleans–based Times-Picayune wrote that he and another photographer were slammed against a wall and had their gear thrown to the ground by police. On September 7, NBC News anchor Brian Williams reported that he and his crew were ordered to stop filming a National Guard unit securing a downtown store. “I have searched my mind for some justification for why I can’t be reporting in a calm and heavily defended American city and cannot find one,” Williams told The Washington Post.

On October 18, a New Orleans police officer was caught on film harassing an Associated Press Television News producer whose crew was filming two other officers beating a man suspected of public intoxication. Two of the officers were fired and one was suspended.

In Washington, federal auditors concluded that President George W. Bush’s administration disseminated “covert propaganda,” in violation of U.S. law, by purchasing favorable domestic news coverage of national education policies. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the administration made undisclosed payments to commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the administration’s education agenda. The administration also used public funds to hire a public relations firm to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party, the GAO reported. The case was referred to federal prosecutors for further review.

In late November, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. military secretly paid Iraqi newspapers to run stories that favorably depicted conditions in Iraq without disclosing that the articles were written by military “information operations” officers. The articles were placed in Baghdad newspapers through a private, Washington, D.C.-based firm. Senate leaders sought explanations from the Pentagon.

Another investigation centered on political influence on the news media. The former chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, resigned from the board in October after an inquiry by the agency’s inspector general. Investigators found that Tomlinson had steered a conservative-oriented talk show onto public television and used “political tests” to hire a former Republican national chairman as the agency’s new president. CPB, a federally funded nonprofit, provides $400 million annually to public television and radio; by law, it is to be free of political influence. Tomlinson contested the findings, saying he sought to instill balance in public broadcasting.

The Guardian of London reported in September that U.S. military interrogators allegedly tried to recruit a detained journalist as a spy. Interrogators allegedly told a journalist for Qatar-based Al-Jazeera that he would be released if he agreed to inform U.S. intelligence authorities about the satellite news network’s activities.

CPJ interviewed military officials and the journalist’s lawyer, and reviewed letters said to have come from the journalist. The journalist, Sami Muhyideen al-Haj, an assistant cameraman for Al-Jazeera, was arrested by Pakistani authorities along the Afghan-Pakistani border while on assignment in December 2001. He was later transferred to the U.S. military facility at Guantánamo Bay, where he was held as an accused “enemy combatant,” according to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon declined to respond to the allegation or to confirm al-Haj’s detainment. Loundermon, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which administers the Guantánamo military facility, said the topic involved confidential intelligence information.

In Iraq, CPJ documented seven cases in which local reporters, photographers, and camera operators were detained by U.S. forces for prolonged periods without charge or the disclosure of any supporting evidence. At least three documented detentions exceeded 100 days, while the others spanned many weeks. The detentions involved journalists working for CBS News, Reuters, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse, among other news agencies.

Four of those Iraqi journalists were still in custody on December 1, when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists. U.S. military spokesmen said the detainees were deemed security threats but would not disclose any specific supporting evidence. CPJ and other news and advocacy organizations continue to seek information about the imprisoned journalists.