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Obama 'worse than Nixon' for press freedoms

Published time: May 25, 2013 02:36

US President Barack Obama. (AFP Photo / Nicholas Kamm)

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President Barack Obama is the biggest threat to press freedom, one of the hallmarks of a true democracy, the United States has seen since former President Nixon, according to attorney James Goodale, widely seen as “the father of reporters' privileges.”

Goodale is best known for using the First Amendment of the US Constitution to successfully defend the New York Times after the paper published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The documents, leaked by Defense Department employee Daniel Ellsberg, revealed that four presidents had deliberately misled US citizens regarding the countries’ intentions in Vietnam. The Nixon administration sought to block the publication of the documents, citing national security and the Espionage Act. 

The case is especially relevant today as the Obama administration seeks to punish WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing diplomatic cables leaked by US Army soldier Bradley Manning. The New York Times, the Guardian, and other outlets would also go on to publish the same information revealed by Manning but have not been targeted for punishment by the government prosecutors. 

Speaking with RT, Goodale also gave his opinion on the recent scandals that saw the US Department of Justice tap phones used by reporters, at least once going as far as to issue a search warrant for a Fox News correspondents’ email account. All, presumably, as part of an attempt to intimidate potential leakers and media personnel into remaining silent on issues that plague the nation.  

Goodale's book, "Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles," is available now. 

RT: In your new book you indicate that former US President Richard Nixon was out to destroy the New York Times, but you also argue that if President Obama succeeds at prosecuting Julian Assange he will be worse than Nixon for press freedom, why so

Richard Nixon pointing to one of the journalists during a press conference in Washington. (AFP Photo)

James Goodale: Let me say one thing about Nixon. He was out to destroy the New York Times, he was out to destroy Brookings Institution, and a lot of other institutions in the United States. President Obama is not out to destroy the Times. What we’re talking about is a discreet area, which is the relationship of the press to national security. In the Pentagon Papers area of national security, Nixon was terrible. He also happened to be terrible in the whole First Amendment area. Obama, by contrast, is okay in the First Amendment area but not okay in national security. Why?

Because Obama has pursued six leakers, that’s the first bad thing he’s done. The second bad thing he’s done is pursued [reporter and leak recipient] James Risen. He’s also suing Julian Assange. If he’s pursuing Julian Assange as a co-conspirator and succeeds he’ll be worse than Nixon because Nixon tried to go after the New York Times and its reporters saying they were co-conspirators but Nixon failed. 

RT: In this context you view Julian Assange as the publisher, similar to the New York Times, similar to the Guardian, and all the other news outlets that then published what Julian Assange exposed through WikiLeaks. US officials maintain that Assange compromised national security by publishing classified documents. As you know, in America, sometimes the First Amendment is trumped by national security issues when information is disclosed when information is published that could threaten soldiers on the battlefield, or threaten the lives of soldiers here at home. Do you believe, honestly, that Assange should face no consequences whatsoever

JG: Yes, that’s right. The same claims were made about the New York Times when it published the Pentagon Papers. It was destroying national security, it was destroying lives. The First Amendment, in that case, trumped the claim of the Nixon administration. Now here, you have to ask yourself, ‘Well what is the First Amendment claim?’ The claim is that Assange can’t be punished if, in fact, there’s no clear and present danger to the country. If you look at the stuff that Assange published I would argue there’s no clear and present danger to the country. It’s been three years, where is the danger? You’re still here and I’m still here. All claims sound terrible when it comes to national security…In my book I look backwards at the Pentagon Papers and there was no damage to national security. You have to look at these claims with a jaundiced eye because after a period of time, you can look at them, and there’s no danger. 

RT: As you mentioned the Obama administration has prosecuted more alleged leakers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. Do you believe that leakers such as Bradley Manning should be subject to some discipline

JG: Yes, I do. I would think that if you started leaking information for the organization you work for then you ought to be fired. I think every organization ought to have a control over its employees, and therefore I think that the 20 years to which Bradley Manning has agreed probably is a good sentence. I think the question with Bradley Manning right now is, is he agreed to 20 years but the government wants to give him life. I just wonder if that’s appropriate but I do believe every organization ought to be able to discipline its employees. 

RT: Then do you fault the Department of Justice for trying to find out who the leakers are, because as you well know there’s been a scandal with the DoJ secretly obtaining the phone records from Associated Press journalists and they also obtained the warrant to search the email of a Fox News reporter. Do you defend the US government in trying to find out who the leakers are

JG: Well I think there is two things. We’ve got six leaker prosecutions, three in the whole history of the United States before then. Everyone leaks in Washington because everyone has got access to national security information. I think the Obama administration has got to dial it back. He’s dialed it back on drones but six [leak prosecutions] is too many. Once you start getting everybody, some of these cases start to blow up in your face. 

Then the second question is how you go about it. I don’t think, when the government is concerned about the behavior of its own employees, that it ought to take the press and throw them into the middle of it, which is what they have done in what we call Rosengate. James Rosen is the reporter for Fox News who was the subject of a search warrant, on a theory that he was a co-conspirator with a gentleman named Kim. I mean, when I look at you, you don’t look like a co-conspirator to me. But if you were to start covering some Washington stories, which inevitably involve national security information, you’re subject to be called a co-conspirator. Legally I could give you the whole song and dance but just for your viewers, and common sense, we know reporters aren’t co-conspirators and we know their records shouldn’t be subject to search warrants. Come on – lay off, President Obama. 

US President Barack Obama, as seen through the eyepiece of a television camera, speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

RT: Do you think they’re doing this to intimidate US journalists from seeking information and publishing these reports on national security issues

JG: Sure, if they did that to your colleague here you could be intimidated. They’re also trying to intimidate those who leak and, as I said, I think they should use some discretion there because when the president speaks to you, he’s leaking. Have you ever thought about that? Every piece of information in Washington, particularly the information which he has his hands on, is classified…So the impact is we have less information, we have less power, and the government – by keeping the information secret – they become more powerful. That’s not good for any of us. 

RT: As a result of the AP and Fox News scandals the New Yorker has launched Strongbox, an online drop box that allows anyone to send leaked documents without their identities ever being known. So this way if the Justice Department asks anyone from the New Yorker magazine ‘Where did you get this information? Who was your source?’ the New Yorker says ‘We don’t know.’ Don’t you find it interesting that the New Yorker is now using the First Amendment practices of Julian Assange to protect the Bradley Manning’s of the world

JG: It doesn’t surprise me at all, because that’s what the New Yorker should be doing in the digital age. That’s what publishers do. After the Julian Assange story broke the New York Times said they were going to set one up and I think the Wall Street Journal, too. Now Obama is saying he wants to get Assange, but Assange is just like the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal. Obama might as well go get the New York Times, and that’s what I’m here to say I’m scared about. 

RT: During his speech on Thursday President Obama did say that he’s troubled by the possibility that the Department of Justice investigations into leaks may “chill the type of journalism that holds government accountable.” As a result, he’s calling on Congress to pass a Media Shield law to guard against government overreach. Do you think that will help to do anything or is it just rhetoric?

JG: I think it’s probably both. What he said was he wants Chuck Schumer, our Senator in New York, to put the bill in. So Schumer gets up and says ‘Look, I’m going to put it in but first we’re going to make an exception so it doesn’t cover WikiLeaks’ and the second thing he said is that it won’t cover national security. I will say, in defense of Schumer, that the old bill on which this is placed didn’t completely eliminate all national security leaks but it had a provision in there that made it very difficult to justify so I question whether that is worth the camel. But gee whiz, we’re not going to protect Julian Assange when the New Yorker is doing the same thing.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference. (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)

RT: There have certainly been some cases where journalists have abused their power. A recent example is that Bloomberg reporters are facing a scandal after being accused of accessing private data on the Bloomberg terminal to further their reporting. Do you see this is as big deal?

JG: Yes I think that’s a big deal. It’s a little bit like  the Rupert Murdoch scandal in London when the papers were hacking in [to a murder victim’s cell phone]. This isn’t hacking, I suppose, but it is the same effect. You’ve got to have privacy for your emails but I’m not defending the Bloomberg journalists. I think we’ve got to realize that we’re in a new, digital world and we’ve got to get clear on what the rules are because it’s so easy to cheat. 

RT: You’ve been called the father of reporters’ privileges. What do you see as the current threats to press freedom in the United States?

JG: It, frankly, is President Obama and Rosengate because this is the first time the – I hate to use the term ‘Espionage Act,’ we’ll say national security act for your viewers – has been used to get reporters. I mean, that really is frightening because it’s usually used to get leakers. Rosen is a leakee, to use legal phraseology. If the Obama administration, or at least his Justice Department, thinks they can use criminal laws to get journalists because they’re co-conspirators, honestly that is one of the worst things I’ve come across in all the years I’ve been doing this. 

RT: In closing, I mentioned your book at the beginning of the interview, what do you hope that readers get from your book?

JG: Well, the purpose of the book is to learn the lesson from the Pentagon Papers, which is to say any president who messes with national security is going to be in deep yogurt. Wake up, America. Wake up, President Obama. President Obama, don’t go after Julian Assange and call him a co-conspirator, that’s bad for everybody. 

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