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Week of 8.4.06

The Press vs. The President

The White House. Photo by Sergio Caltagirone Publication of controversial stories related to the 'war on terror' and the conflict in Iraq have led to rough relations between the White House and some reporters. In addition to fostering debate about the role and responsibility of a free press, these articles have resulted in calls for tighter controls on the press and more aggressive punishment of journalists who publish stories based on classified information.

Below is a review of some of the most recent run-ins between the Bush Administration and the press.

Tracking Terrorists' Bank Records

After The New York Times disclosed leaked details in June 2006 of a Bush administration effort to track millions of bank records of suspected terrorists, it faced a barrage of criticism from Washington. President Bush said it was "disgraceful" that the news media had disclosed the program, and The Times was accused of breaking a long tradition of keeping wartime secrets. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee took it a step further, calling the leak "treasonous" and urged the Justice Department to prosecute The Times.

The program was also exposed by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. The White House had asked the newspapers to hold the story, arguing that national security would be compromised if it was published.

The executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, said on the PBS show "Charlie Rose" that the paper felt the story should be published because the program "was part of a larger tendency on the part of the Bush administration to expand executive powers in the war on terror without the kind of oversight that has been customary from Congress."

NSA's Eavesdropping Program

In December 2005, The New York Times reported that, after 9/11, President Bush allowed the National Security Agency to monitor the phone calls of hundreds of people within the U.S. without court approval.

"The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," President Bush.
President Bush called the decision to print details of the program "a shameful act" adding "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy." Prior to the publication of the report, Bush had summoned The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the White House to talk them out of revealing the program, according to a Newsweek report. The Times has not gone into specifics of any meeting, but did say in a July editorial that the administration had urged the paper to hold the story.

Public knowledge of the NSA program has led to questions about its legality, with critics saying the program violates federal law governing wiretaps. New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey had requested a Justice Department investigation into the program. But last month President Bush stopped the inquiry, according to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Hinchey said he would urge the president to allow the probe to go forward.

The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

Secret CIA Prisons

The Washington Post first reported in November 2005 that the CIA had been using secret prisons in Eastern Europe to detain and interrogate terror suspects for its program of "extraordinary renditions." The allegations led to a political and public outcry in both America and Europe.

In a letter, Republican leaders said the leaking of classified information by employees of the U.S. government appeared to have increased in recent years, "establishing a dangerous trend that, if not addressed swiftly and firmly, likely will worsen." Mary McCarthy, a CIA officer, was reportedly fired for leaking the classified information to the Post, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the story. The Justice Department has been examining whether the information was illegally given to The Post.

In June 2006, a report from Europe's human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, concluded that fourteen European states colluded with the CIA in secret U.S. flights for terror suspects.

CIA Leak on Valerie Plame

Valerie Plame and husband Joseph Wilson
Joseph Wilson and wife Valerie Plame
Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent was revealed by journalist Robert Novak in his column in July 2003 shortly after her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat, published an article in the New York Times. In the article, Wilson criticized the administration for its intelligence on Iraq. Some have argued that the revelation of Plame's identity was made by the Bush administration as retribution against her husband.

The leak sparked a high-level criminal investigation, ending with the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Days after Novak's initial article appeared, several other reporters published Plame's name, citing unnamed government officials as sources. Some journalists, including Times reporter Judith Miller, were subpoenaed to testify about who in the administration told them about Plame's identity. Miller refused, and spent 85 days in jail as a result.

In July, Joseph and Valerie Wilson filed a civil suit against Libby along with Vice President Dick Cheney, top Presidential advisor Karl Rove and other unnamed senior White House officials, for their role in the public disclosure of her classified CIA status.