Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Diplomacy and disinformation

cyber age: ND Batra
From The Statesman
Info leaks as weapons of destruction

The wages of disinformation have to be paid sooner or later, as the Bush White House and some celebrity journalists are learning painfully.

In 2003, the CIA asked diplomat Joseph Wilson to investigate whether Saddam Hussein procured uranium (yellow cakes) from Niger. Wilson found no evidence and was publicly critical of the Bush administration for making the claim to justify the Iraq invasion. In an Op-Ed piece published on 6 July 2003 in The New York Times, Wilson questioned the infamous “16 words” from President Bush’s state of the union address in which he said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Immediately after Wilson’s critical report, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that “two senior administration officials” told him that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA secret agent working on issues related to weapons of mass destruction and she had suggested her husband be sent for the yellow cake investigation.

The information was leaked to him and other well-known reporters to discredit Wilson and to compromise his wife’s career. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act enacted in 1982 to protect undercover CIA agents makes it a crime to intentionally identify a covert agent. The culprit in this diabolical case was not only the conservative columnist Novak, who willingly allowed himself to be used as a tool of vilification, but also other journalists and some White House officials.

Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter, who never published her story but was a recipient of a White House official leak, was subpoenaed to reveal whom she talked to in the White House. But she refused and chose to go to jail to protect her First Amendment freedom to gather news and keep her mouth shut about her source.

Her defiance at that time seemed very heroic and drew global sympathy. Another journalist, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, also privy to the leak, agreed to testify before the grand jury but only after Time handed over the source of the leak to investigators. In a grandiloquent and vainglorious tone, The New York Times wrote that it was “a proud and awful moment” for the newspaper because of one of its reporters, Judith Miller, “has decided to accept a jail sentence rather than testify before a grand jury about one of her confidential sources.”

After spending 85 days in jail, Miller said that her confidential source had released her from the promise of confidentiality and she agreed to testify before the grand jury investigating the leak. But soon The Times’ editors discovered that Miller had been less than forthcoming about her “entanglement” with her confidential source.

A colleague at the Times called her a “woman of mass destruction”. Miller apparently played a game of simulation and dissimulation.

Journalists cultivate confidential sources to uncover corruption; and sometime they know more about a case than crime investigators. Whistleblowers leak documents or talk on the promise of confidentiality to reporters.

Reporters must report if they have information that impacts society. Not to report truth would be not only complicity in crime but also unethical and unprofessional behaviour. Sometimes courts, and even legislatures, issue subpoenas demanding information including notes, photos and videos that have not been even published, failing which they exercise contempt power. Contempt power tends to chill Press freedom. Why? Because journalists would dread going behind public relations handouts to find out the truth about the misbehaviour of public men.

American society, for more than four decades, has been struggling with how to strike a balance between the news media’s obligation to do investigative reporting by cultivating confidential sources and the needs of the courts and law enforcement for access to crucial information that journalists might possess.

When a journalist is the only source of information, and possesses an indispensable piece of evidence in a legal case, information so compelling that without revealing its source there is the danger of justice being miscarried, in such a circumstance the source must be revealed regardless of the promise of confidentiality. The right to a fair trial is no less important than Press freedom. But how do you strike the balance?

In the course of time, the US Supreme Court began to use “preferred position balance theory” in deciding conflicts between Press freedom and other rights. In numerous rulings, the court held that some freedoms especially those granted by the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech and the Press) are fundamental to a free society and consequently deserving of more protection than other constitutional values. Nonetheless, Press freedom does not automatically trump all other rights, especially the constitutionally guaranteed right of a person to a fair trial, which may require access to critical evidence in the possession of a journalist.

Thus by giving Press freedom a preferred position in balance with other rights, the court put the burden of proof on the government that forcing a journalist to disclose his news source is necessary.

It is also important to understand that when sources suspect collusion between law enforcement and news organisations, trust is lost. Free flow of accurate and reliable information is choked; and power begins to corrupt. An independent judiciary and a responsible free Press are the watchdogs of an open, secular, democratic society. And they must be kept apart.

It is not only criminal but also unethical when reporters become tools of vindictive officials or political operatives, as columnist Novak and others chose to become, taking shelter under the First Amendment in protecting their confidential sources when they should have known better.

Special counsel Patrick J Fitzgerald, investigating the leak, has concluded his grand jury investigation in the case of Vice- President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I Lewis Libby, who has been indicted with “obstruction of justice, false statement and perjury charges” for lying about how and when he got and disclosed to reporters classified information regarding CIA agent Plame.

While this may be only the beginning of the trouble for the White House, the US news media has suffered another blow to its dwindling credibility.

1 comment:

  1. Western media, especially US media neve have credibility.

    In 1980s, US media portrayed Sadam as a freedom fight when Iraq had war with Iran. But over night, Sadam became a dictator. How can you trust US media?

    WMD was another big lie.

    Today, Iran has a democratic gov and its leaders were elected by its people. This country is the most democratic one in middle east. But US treats it as US's enemy.