We often hear that the Pentagon exists to defend our freedoms. But the Pentagon is moving against press freedom.
Not long ago, journalist Sarah Olson received a subpoena to testify next month in the court-martial of U.S. Army Lt. Ehren Watada, who now faces prosecution for speaking against the Iraq war and refusing to participate in it. Apparently, the commanders at the Pentagon are so eager to punish Watada that they've decided to go after reporters who have informed the public about his statements.
People who run wars are notoriously hostile to a free press. They're quick to praise it -- unless the reporting goes beyond mere stenography for the war-makers and actually engages in journalism that makes the military command uncomfortable.
Evidently, that's why the Pentagon subpoenaed Olson. They want her to testify to authenticate her quotes from Watada -- which is to say, they want to force her into the prosecution of him. "Army lawyers are overreaching when they try to prosecute their case by drafting reporters," the Los Angeles Times noted in a Jan. 8 editorial.
The newspaper added: "No prosecutor should be able to conscript any reporter into being a deputy by compelling testimony about a statement made by a source -- or go fishing for information beyond what a reporter presents in a story -- unless it's absolutely vital to protect U.S. citizens from crime or attack. This principle should apply whether or not the source was speaking in confidence, or whether or not the reporter works for a media organization."
Olson is a freelancer whose reporting on Watada has appeared on the widely read Truthout.org website and has aired on the nationwide public radio program "Making Contact." (Full disclosure: I was a founder of that program and served as an advisor.) For a number of years, she has been doing the job of a journalist. Now, in its dealings with her, the Pentagon is despicably trying to trample on the First Amendment.
As the LA Times editorialized, "there is something especially chilling about the U.S. military reaching beyond its traditional authority to compel a non-military U.S. citizen engaged in news-gathering to testify in a military court, simply to bolster a court-martial case. ... Sustaining the military subpoena would set a troubling precedent. It's time for the Army to back off."
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But the Army hasn't shown any sign of backing off -- despite an outcry from a widening range of eminent journalists, mainstream media institutions and First Amendment groups.
"Trying to force a reporter to testify at a court-martial sends the wrong signal to the media and the military," said the president of the Military Reporters and Editors organization, James W. Crawley. He commented: "One of the hallmarks of American journalism, as documented in the Bill of Rights and defended by our armed services, is a clear separation of the press and the government. Using journalists to help the military prosecute its case seems like a serious breach of that wall."
By sending subpoenas to Sarah Olson and to another journalist who has reported on Watada (Gregg Kakesako of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin), the Pentagon is trying to chip away at the proper role of news media.
Two officials of the PEN American Center, a venerable organization that works to protect freedom of expression, put the issue well in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "If Olson and Kakesako respond to these subpoenas by testifying, they will essentially be participating in the prosecution of their source. Reporters should not serve as the investigative arm of the government. Such a role compromises their objectivity and can have chilling effects on the press."
Writing for Editor & Publisher magazine, Sarah Olson summed up what is at stake: "A member of the press should never be placed in the position of aiding a government prosecution of political speech. This goes against the grain of even the most basic understanding of the First Amendment's free press guarantees and the expectation of a democracy that relies on a free flow of information and perspectives without fear of censor or retribution."
And Olson added: "You may ask: Do I want to be sent to prison by the U.S. Army for not cooperating with their prosecution of Lieutenant Watada? My answer: Absolutely not. You may also ask: Would I rather contribute to the prosecution of a news source for sharing newsworthy perspectives on an affair of national concern? That is the question I wholly object to having before me in the first place."
The Pentagon's attack on journalism is an attack on the First Amendment -- and an attempt to drive a wedge between journalists and dissenters in the military. Resistance is essential for democracy.