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Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill appearing on CNN to discuss how the 'war on terror' should be reported. (Screengrab)

Scahill: White House Attempt to Control Who Journalists Source Is Assault on Press Freedoms

Hostillity towards whistleblowers, investigative reporting, and "inconvenient facts" is a troubling pattern

Common Dreams staff

Though he readily acknowledged that the level of press freedom in the U.S. is not comparable to the repressive polices in countries like Russia and Turkey, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday and argued that the U.S. government does have an openly "hostile posture" towards facts it finds "inconvenient" and that recent urgings by the FBI that newspapers should not quote members of Al Qaeda for news stories is evidence of a broader assault on press freedom by the current administration.

Last week, the director of the FBI James Comey sent a letter to the New York Times in which he criticized that paper and any journalist who would quote an anonymous official from Al Qaeada in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, which claimed credit for helping orchestrate the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. In his letter, Comey called the practice of obtaining comment from sources within these networks of people "disgusting."

For his part, Scahill was among those who recently cited an anonymous member of AQAP while reporting for his news outlet, The Intercept. Asked by Reliable Sources host Brian Stetler about the decision to speak with AQAP members, Scahill made it clear that U.S. officials in the White House and The Pentagon are not the only ones who should be able to comment on the so-called "War on Terror" that has been ongoing since 2001.

"First of all," Scahill said, "in a time of war, good journalists have a responsibility to go to the other side and interview the people we're told we're at war with. In the case of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, this group has been identified by the U.S. government as the single greatest external threat facing the United States. Why wouldn't we want to have an understanding of their thinking?"

On the issue of granting anonymity, Scahill continued, "I'm generally against using anonymous sources, particularly when they're senior U.S. officials. We saw what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq War when Dick Cheney and others were leaking information to the New York Times and other papers that ultimately benefited the administration. In this case, we had a situation in which the gunmen declared that they were from Al Qaeda in Yemen [and] I've spent a lot of time on the ground and Yemen and have a number of sources from a variety of factions and groups in that country. I decided, through a process involving our editor-in-chief and legal counsel, to grant anonymity to a verified source within Al Qaeda because it was of news value and if we had revealed the source their life could have been in danger. And that's where it gets complicated, because that, to me, is one of the highest standards for granting anonymity is if the life of a source could be in danger."

In a separate portion of the interview, as Mediate highlighted, Scahill criticized news outlets—namely the television cable networks—for continuing to provide a platform for so-called "counter-terrorism experts" without disclosing their relationship with private defense or intelligence corporations or the ways they may benefit financially from the ongoing wars or operations they are asked to discuss.

"I don’t think CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News do anywhere near a good enough job," Scahill said, "at revealing the potential conflicts of interests of some of the on-air analysts who also work in the private sector and make money on the idea that we should be afraid."

Later, Scahill added that the current "war against whistleblowers" being waged by the Obama administration in this country is, in effect, an attack on overall press freedoms.

"When you say that we don't have a right to talk to unauthorized sources in government," Scahill argued, "what you're effectively saying is that [journalists] are only allowed to print official leaks or official statements of the government. It undermines the very idea of a free press."

Watch the full interview:

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