WEB EXCLUSIVE: RICK KARR ON GOVERNMENT SECRECY
RICK KARR: You may not know James Risen's name, but you probably know his work: He's one of the NEW YORK TIMES reporters who broke the story of the Bush administration listening in to phone calls and reading email, without search warrants. That story infuriated some conservatives. A popular blog accused Risen and his co-author of treason for revealing sensitive information, and pundit William Bennett said the reporters deserved jail time.
Bennett may get his wish. A federal prosecutor has asked a grand jury to look into a book that Risen wrote. It details not only warrantless wiretapping but also how, when it came to covert operations in the Middle East, the Administration made "mistake piled on mistake" caused an "espionage disaster" and was "operating in the blind" when it came to Iran.
Risen was subpoenaed to tell a grand jury who he talked to about Iran in other words, to reveal his anonymous sources. So far, the reporter has refused to talk. And recently, his lawyer moved to quash the subpoena. Some veteran investigative journalists wrote letters in support of that motion. One of them told me that if Risen is forced to testify, the public will be the real loser. Here's why: Anonymous sources have a lot to lose if their identities are revealed because a lot of them are powerful or prominent. So, if the Federal government can force a reporter like Risen to reveal their identities, those sources will clam up. There'd be more corruption and wrongdoing in Washington that the public would never learn about.
Administration officials seem not to mind keeping the public in the dark.
But for muckrakers and whistleblowers, it's getting harder and harder to expose corruption and wrongdoing.
Take the case of former FBI agent Sibel Edmonds: She blew the whistle on massive incompetence at the Bureau sloppy translations, missed messages from terror suspects. She even alleged that insiders were leaking secrets to foreign agents. She lost her job for it.
Just after Congress got interested in her story and a bipartisan group of Senators said they found her claims credible enough to warrant an investigation the administration retroactively classified everything that she knew, pretty much shutting down any chance of an investigation. U.S. journalists have found it nearly impossible to look into her claims. Over the past year, there's been only one article on her in a major newspaper, and it simply announced that she'd won a freedom-of-speech award. Meanwhile, the TIMES OF LONDON has published three stories just this year digging into her claim that Administration officials sold secrets to foreign governments.
Sometimes the Administration's efforts to squelch critics seem downright petty: Reporters for the Web site TALKING POINTS MEMO, for example, led the way in showing how the Administration encouraged federal prosecutors to go after Democrats, but go easy on Republicans. So the Department of Justice kicked the web site off of its press list. A small thing, sure, but it rankled one member of the House enough that he asked Attorney General Michael Mukasey about it at a hearing. Mukasey's response? "I don't know."
Recently, the Department of Justice reinstated TALKING POINTS MEMO to its press list right around the same time that the web site won an award for its reporting on the Department of Justice.
So, Administration officials stonewall lawmakers and try to silence critics or just make their jobs harder. That's not news. But this time, a reporter could go to jail. The irony in James Risen's predicament is that he was one of the reporters who revealed that the Administration could never have secretly listened in on phone calls, or read emails, without help from big telecom firms the conglomerates that supply most Americans with phone or Internet service. After the article appeared, civil-liberties advocates filed lawsuits against the conglomerates trying to hold them accountable for helping the Administration break the law. Just recently, the Senate voted to grant those telecom companies immunity from the lawsuits to let them off the hook while the reporter who'd exposed them fought to stay out of jail.
Rick Karr is a correspondent for BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.