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Rick Karr on Government Secrecy
Rick Karr. Photo by Robin Holland
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February 28, 2008

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.

Published on February 28, 2008.

Related Media:
Christian ParentiJosh Marshall
The popular political blogger from TALKINGPOINTSMEMO.COM gives the JOURNAL his perspective on the role of politics in the recent firings of federal prosecutors (April 27, 2007)

March in PakistanThe Church Committee and FISA
Bill Moyers talks with constitutional law professor Charles Fried and lawyer and author Fritz Schwarz on the growing power of the executive branch.. (October 26, 2007)

References and Reading:
James Risen

"Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts"
THE NEW YORK TIMES, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, December 16, 2005.

"The Pulitzer Prize for Treason,"
Scott Johnson, of POWERLINE BLOG, argues that reporting on the NSA domestic surveillance program was treason. April 17, 2006.

"Times Reporter Subpoenaed Over Source for Book
by Philip Shenon, February 1, 2008. THE NEW YORK TIMES reports on James Risen's Subpoena.

Sibel Edmonds

"What FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds found in translation"
Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi argued in the AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE that the Sibel Edmonds case demands attention. The DALLAS MORNING NEWS has reprinted an excerpt. February 17, 2008.

"For sale: West's deadly nuclear secrets"
The first of three stories reported by the UK's SUNDAY TIMES in January 2008 about Sibel Edmonds charges. January 8, 2008.

"FBI denies exposing nuclear secrets theft"
The second of three stories reported by the UK's SUNDAY TIMES in January about Sibel Edmonds charges. January 20, 2008.

"Tip-off thwarted nuclear spy ring probe"
The third story by the UK's SUNDAY TIMES investigating Sibel Edmonds claims that Turkey has infiltrated the FBI. January 27, 2008.

Also This Week:

As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make their appeals to "lunchbox voters" in Ohio and Texas, expert on media and politics Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzes the messages on the campaign trail in the lead up to potentially decisive primaries.

Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America. Does today's economic disparity indicate a new "Gilded Age" that threatens democracy?

You've been writing and we've been reading. Revisit past JOURNAL stories.

Are muckrakers and whistleblowers facing insurmountable odds?

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