Attacks on the Press 2006: United States


After consuming the press freedom landscape for more than two years, an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative’s name wound down with a whimper. News organizations reported in August that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald apparently knew from the day his investigation began in December 2003 that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the person who identified a CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak. Novak was the first to publicly identify Valerie Plame, also known as Valerie Wilson, in a 2003 column that sparked the controversial investigation.

Despite knowing the source from the onset, the special prosecutor’s $1.4 million probe continued in an apparent effort to determine whether the leak was part of a concerted White House effort to discredit the operative’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for writing an op-ed critical of the administration. But Fitzgerald did not charge anyone with intentionally revealing Plame’s identity. Vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the sole person charged, was indicted on allegations of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters. Libby’s case was pending throughout the year. The only person jailed in the case was then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who served 85 days in 2005 for refusing to disclose confidential sources. Many lawyers and press freedom advocates said they feared the Plame case would inspire prosecutors seeking the source of government leaks to pursue journalists more aggressively.

Such aggressive tactics against the press were on display in San Francisco, where two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle were held in contempt in September for refusing to reveal who leaked secret grand jury testimony about alleged steroid use by top athletes. Reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada obtained grand jury testimony given by baseball stars Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and other elite athletes during a criminal investigation into the alleged distribution of steroids by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. The journalists wrote a series of articles as well as a book that quoted the leaked testimony.

The reporters’ coverage of the steroid scandal drew national attention to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional athletes, helping spawn Congressional hearings and significant changes in Major League Baseball’s drug-testing policies. The Chronicle and its reporters have appealed the contempt ruling, which could result in the reporters’ jailing. Bonds, meanwhile, closed in on baseball’s all-time home run record.

Reports that U.S. intelligence agencies gained access to a Brussels-based storehouse of international financial transactions led U.S. officials to make some of their harshest remarks against the press in recent memory. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal reported in June that the Bush administration had gained access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, in search of monetary transfers that might involve terrorist suspects.

President George W. Bush told White House correspondents that “the disclosure of this program is disgraceful,” adding that it “makes it harder to win this war on terror.” Members of Congress went further. Sen. Jim Bunning accused The New York Times of “treason” and Rep. Peter King urged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to pursue “possible criminal prosecution” of the Times. “This isn’t about freedom of the press; it’s about what is prudent in a time of war,” said Sen. Pat Roberts on PBS’ “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

The editors of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, Dean Baquet and Bill Keller, made the rare decision to respond together in an op-ed that ran in both newspapers on the same day. “In recent years our papers have brought you a great deal of information the White House never intended for you to know—classified secrets about the questionable intelligence that led the country to war in Iraq, about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the transfer of suspects to countries that are not squeamish about using torture, about eavesdropping without warrants. …We understand that honorable people may disagree with any of these choices—to publish or not to publish. But making those decisions is the responsibility that falls to editors, a corollary to the great gift of our independence. It is not a responsibility we take lightly. And it is not one we can surrender to the government.”

This unusually tense debate came five months after Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general’s office was investigating the source of leaks for a 2005 New York Times story disclosing that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on phone calls within the United States without first obtaining court warrants. The Justice Department has yet to file any criminal charges.

In a policy shift, U.S. military officials pledged prompt, high-level reviews whenever journalists were detained in Iraq. “We are aware that journalists, by the nature of their duties, often will be at the scene of attacks when they occur,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told CPJ in confirming the shift. The change followed months of advocacy by CPJ, which documented at least eight prior cases in which U.S. forces jailed Iraqi journalists for weeks or months without charge or due process. One was finally charged then cleared; the others were eventually freed without charge.

Yet at least one long-term detention in Iraq renewed questions about U.S. practices. In September, The Associated Press revealed that Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bilal Hussein was detained by the U.S. military on April 12 and held without charge. In a May 7 e-mail, Maj. Gen. John Gardner told the AP that “the information available establishes that he has close relationships with insurgents.” AP President and CEO Thomas Curley called for Hussein to be charged or freed, and CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger urged the Pentagon to give the photographer due process. The Pentagon’s Whitman said Hussein was given a chance to provide information in his defense at two military hearings, but an AP lawyer said Hussein got notice of only one such hearing—and that notice came after the hearing had taken place.

The U.S. military continued to hold Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj in detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Al-Haj, first detained in Pakistan in December 2001, has not been charged or provided due process. His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, contended that U.S. military authorities were instead intent on extracting information about his employer, Al-Jazeera. U.S. officials contacted by CPJ declined to discuss the case. CPJ outlined the case and called for due process in a special report in October, “The Enemy?”

The journalist and author Ron Suskind reported in his book The One Percent Doctrine, released in June, that U.S. forces deliberately targeted Al-Jazeera’s Kabul bureau, which was bombed in November 2001. “My sources are clear that it was done on purpose,” Suskind told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer after the book’s release. U.S. military officials declined to respond to the allegation, except to reiterate a long-standing claim that the military believed the building that housed the Al-Jazeera offices, which had satellite dishes on its roof, was a “known al-Qaeda facility.”

The U.S. Defense Department inspector general found in October that a U.S. military program to pay Iraqi journalists and newspapers to report stories favorable to U.S. efforts in Iraq was legal under the Pentagon’s rules for psychological operations. “Psychological operations are a central part of information operations and contribute to achieving the … commander’s objectives,” according to the unclassified executive summary as quoted by the AP. The planted news stories convey “selected, truthful information to foreign audiences to influence their emotions … reasoning, and ultimately, the behavior of governments.”

In California, freelance video blogger Joshua Wolf was ordered to jail for refusing to hand over a videotape, subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, of a June 2005 protest in San Francisco. Wolf’s tape documented clashes between demonstrators and police during a rally protesting a Group of 8 economic conference. The grand jury was investigating possible criminal activity, including an alleged attempt by protesters to burn a police vehicle. Wolf sold footage of the protest to San Francisco television stations and posted it on his Web site, the AP reported. Investigators were seeking Wolf’s testimony and portions of his videotape that were not made public.