By: Charles J. Hanley, The Associated Press
Headline by headline, a trickle of news leaks on Iraq and the antiterror campaign has grown into a steady stream of revelations, and from Pennsylvania Avenue to Downing Street, Copenhagen to Canberra, governments are responding with pressure and prosecutions.
The latest target is The New York Times. But the unfolding story begins as far back as 2003, when British weapons expert David Kelly was “outed” as the source of a story casting doubt on his government’s arguments for invading Iraq, and he committed suicide.
And it will roll on this fall, when Danish journalists face trial for reporting their government knew there was no evidence of banned weapons in Iraq.
In London’s Central Criminal Court, too, accused leakers will be in the dock this fall, for allegedly disclosing President Bush talked of bombing al-Jazeera, the Arab television station. The British government threatens to prosecute newspapers that write any more about that leaked document.
Media advocates are alarmed at what they see as a mounting assault on press freedom in country after country, arguing it is potentially chilling the pursuit of truth as U.S. and European leaders pursue wars on terror and in Iraq.
“It’s grotesque that at a time when political rhetoric is full of notions of democracy and liberty that we should have this fundamental right of journalists to investigate and report on public interest matters called into question,” Aidan White, general-secretary of the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists, told The Associated Press.
But others counter that national interest requires stopping leaks of classified information, and that some media reports endanger lives by tipping terrorists to government tactics.
“We cannot continue to operate in a system where the government takes steps to counter terrorism while the media actively works to disclose those operations without any regard for protection of lives, sources and legal methods,” Sen. Pat Roberts said in Washington.
The Kansas Republican was reacting to a June 23 report by the Times – and other papers – detailing a U.S. government program that taps into a huge international database of financial records to try to track terror financing.
Some Republican lawmakers called for criminal investigations of the journalists responsible and of the government insiders who leaked the information.
Investigations are already under way in other U.S. cases, reaching back to 2003, when whistleblower Joseph Wilson questioned a Bush administration claim about Iraq’s supposed nuclear program. Times reporter Judith Miller spent three months in jail in that complex case last year, as investigators sought whoever leaked the name of Wilson’s CIA-agent wife.
The Washington Times says the Justice Department is also investigating New York Times and Washington Post reporters – the Times for disclosing in 2005 that the government was monitoring Americans’ phone calls without court warrants and the Post for reporting that the CIA was operating secret prisons for suspected terrorists in eastern Europe. The CIA in April fired a top analyst as an alleged source for the reports on covert prisons.
Just as the stories cross borders, so do the crackdowns.
Swiss investigators are looking for the leaker of an intelligence document attesting to the CIA prison network and are weighing criminal charges, under secrecy laws, against three journalists at the weekly SonntagsBlick who reported the story.
In Britain, revelations and retributions have filled news columns and airwaves since the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the British Broadcasting Corp., citing an unidentified government source, said allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – now known to have been false – had been “sexed up.”
In July that year, bioweapons expert David Kelly informed superiors he was the BBC’s source. He expected confidentiality, but his identity was disclosed and he was compelled to testify, under harsh questioning, before two parliamentary committees. Within days, Kelly killed himself.
In 2004-05, at London’s Daily Telegraph and then at The Times, correspondent Michael Smith reported on leaked memos from Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government indicating the Bush administration was long committed to invading Iraq, and weapons intelligence was “fixed” around that aim. Smith says he has been investigated under Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but neither he nor any leaker has been charged.
For David Keogh, a former British Cabinet Office spokesman, and Leo O’Connor, an ex-Parliament aide, the outcome was different.
Both are charged under the secrecy act in the alleged leaking of a classified memo about a Bush-Blair meeting in 2004 at which Blair was said to have argued against a Bush suggestion of bombing al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar. Keogh and O’Connor face up to two years in prison if convicted this fall.
After London’s Daily Mirror reported on that memo last November, Britain’s attorney general warned other editors they could face prosecution if they divulged any more of the leaked document.
Across the North Sea, Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen of Berlingske Tidene, a major Danish daily, face two years in prison at their trial this fall – the first such prosecution of journalists in Denmark’s modern history.
They reported in 2004 that before joining the Iraq invasion, the Danish government was told by military intelligence there was no firm evidence of banned weapons in Iraq, a finding the Danes presumably based on U.S. and British information.
Because it involved going to war, “the articles published were obviously in the public interest,” the newspaper’s chief editor, Niels Lunde, told AP.
The Danish leaker, a former intelligence officer, was convicted and jailed for four months last year. Now “the court must decide whether the penal code provision banning publishing secret information applies to these journalists,” said prosecutor Karsten Hjorth. The government contends the leak damaged its intelligence relations with other nations.
-Two journalists in Romania face up to seven years in prison for possessing classified documents about the Romanian military’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though their newspapers never published the information.
-A German parliamentary report May 26 disclosed Berlin’s foreign intelligence agency had been illegally spying on German journalists since the 1990s to find the sources of leaks.
-De Telegraaf, the Netherlands’ biggest paper, had to go to court to win a ruling last month ordering the Dutch secret service to stop wiretapping calls of two reporters who obtained leaked information about official corruption.
“Systematic surveillance is becoming one of the most worrying features in relations between authorities and media worldwide,” said the journalist federation’s White.
Even whistleblowers who don’t divulge state secrets can feel the heat – like Australia’s Rod Barton.
After the Canberra government dismissed what he privately reported about phony weapons “intelligence” and prisoner abuse in Iraq, the former Iraq weapons inspector went public last year with the information. Soon Barton’s government contract work evaporated, he was “disinvited” from official functions, and former colleagues were ordered to shun him.
“Although there is still freedom of speech, it is not entirely free. There is a price,” he told AP.