A New Sense of Justice

23.01.2006

Yesterday's heroes are today's villains -- and vice versa

The year 2005 marked a turning point of sorts in the history of western democracies. It's not just that government scandal and corruption seemed to have reached new heights, but that the very concept of justice appears to have undergone a profound change. This change is such that what is understood to be right and wrong has been turned completely on its head. This was best exemplified by two major events to have hit American politics last year: the investigation into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent and a story in the New York Times (admittedly a year late) about illegal wiretapping authorised by the White House.

Sadly, what goes on in the US invariably infects the rest of the western world, albeit in a different sort of way. Thus, the undercurrent behind these two events, which strikes at the very heart of democratic society, can be felt elsewhere even though its not as apparent. For this reason, there is an urgent need within Europe to examine the full extent that legal systems -- and our understanding of them -- have become warped, lest democratic society begins to slide beyond the point of no return into a form of authoritarianism known as "electoral dictatorship", one in which we periodically choose our dictators during so-called "elections".

A Just Cause?

The Valerie Plame case provides a perfect example of how, without due vigilance, our concepts of justice can be manipulated. In 2005, a federal investigation into who revealed to reporters that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA agent was nearing a climax. Valerie Plame is the wife of Joe Wilson, who wrote about the Bush administration's bogus claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger.

In the US, it's a federal crime to reveal the name of an undercover CIA agent. Nevertheless, in retaliation for debunking the hoax, someone from the White House had leaked to reporters the fact that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent. Judith Miller, one of the reporters involved in the case, refused to reveal her source and spent 85 days in jail for contempt of court before finally co-operating with the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald.

The story of Judith Miller led to a massive outcry by journalists from all sides of the political spectrum who saw the entire episode as a blatant attack against the First Amendment (i.e., the freedom of speech) and, in particular, the freedom of the press. Many felt that journalistic privilege was under threat, and that compelling a reporter to reveal their sources to the police was tantamount to turning that reporter into a police agent. Most saw Miller's refusal to reveal her source as a form of civil disobedience and that she was ultimately sent to jail defending a noble cause.

What most media pundits in the US failed to grasp was that Miller wasn't protecting a whistle-blower who had exposed a government crime; she was protecting a government criminal who had attacked a whistle-blower. Hence, those who were defending Miller under the guise of the need to protect an anonymous source were actually using journalistic privilege to turn justice on its head. As one observer put it, "the First Amendment exists so that the press can be a check on government abuse of power, not a handmaiden to it."

Ironically, in mid-October 2005 Miller received from the Society of Professional Journalists' the "First Amendment Award" for voluntarily refusing to reveal a source, and spending time in jail as a result. The hypocrisy in all of this was quite obvious, as one critic explained:

[Miller] is a reporter who violated the standards of professional journalism to work with a top White House official to get revenge on a government critic -- and then declined to testify to protect him from the criminal consequences of his lies. This context has an obvious bearing on Miller's qualifications for an award celebrating freedom of expression.

Deep Throat

As the Miller saga unfolded during the summer of 2005, a related story emerged concerning the identity of a person known simply as "Deep Throat". Deep Throat is the pseudonym for the anonymous source used by two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, during the Watergate scandal which ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon. It is a secret which had been kept for 33 years.

The mainstream media immediately drew parallels between those involved in the reporting on Watergate and those involved in the Valerie Plame case. At the same time, the "Downing Street memos" were suddenly revealed in the UK, which proved that the Bush administration was determined to go to war with Iraq no matter what happened on the diplomatic front.

Writing for the Media advocacy group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Norman Solomon noted the irony of the situation, in that with the convergence of the Plame case and the story of Deep Throat's identity, attention was expertly diverted from news of the Downing Street memos, a situation which otherwise could have -- or even should have -- lead to Bush's resignation in much the same way Nixon was compelled to leave office. As Solomon writes,

across the United States in early June, front pages filled up with stories about Deep Throat and the bygone Watergate era, but editors at major newspapers still couldn't spare prominent space for scrutiny of the Downing Street memo -- smoking-gun minutes from a top-level meeting of British officials convened by Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 23, 2002.

Yet the revelation of Deep Throat's identity was more than just a convenient means by which to divert public attention away from news of the Downing Street memos. It was also meant to help and reinforce Miller in her stand against revealing her sources.

The entire Deep Throat episode is a vivid example of how public opinion is often manipulated by government through the mainstream media, in that upcoming events or present issues are supplemented by certain "unconnected" or "coincidental" events. Deep Throat isn't the only such example; a few months prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, the film Pearl Harbor had been released.

The fact that the revelation of Deep Throat's identity was no mere coincidence can be seen in the fact that Deep Throat himself was totally oblivious to what was going on. At 91 years old, Mark Felt (the informer known as Deep Throat) remembers little from the period in question. This was confirmed by an audio recording with Woodward, where he said: "Well, I think I remembered the area and a time, but I don't remember specifically anything". Consequently, it wasn't Felt who made the decision to disclose his identity; it was his daughter and their lawyer who made the decision for him.

It's questionable whether Mark Felt would have ever authorised the disclosure. While still in control of all his faculties, he was adamant that his identity remain a secret. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein promised him that they would never identify him, his agency, or even a suggestion in print that such a source existed. Still, when the two reporters wrote "All the President's Men", which is about reporting Watergate, and subsequently made mention of Deep Throat (though his identity and agency weren't disclosed), he was very unhappy about it. Woodward recalled that when he phoned him after the book came out Felt hung up on him, and that "it was like a kick in the stomach."

The Almighty

As the Plame case and the story of Deep Throat receded into the background toward the end of 2005, another event soon emerged – this time with far greater implications. The New York Times published a story on December 16, 2005 by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau which revealed that following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Bush administration initiated warrantless wiretaps on hundreds of people within the US -- including US citizens -- even though a federal law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, expressly forbids the government from doing so.

The effect of this article was such that a few days into the new year, the White House vowed to find out who was the leak for the story. This time, the government source wasn't working to smear a critic of the administration, but had exposed government wrongdoing at the highest level. Yet now the anonymous source seems to be portrayed as an unpatriotic criminal of sorts, and the mainstream media appears to be silent on the issue. It remains to be seen, if push ever comes to shove, whether there will be the same sort of outcry in support of anonymous sources as had happened with Judith Miller.

Although the story contains enough detail to seriously question Bush's ability of continue as President, it seems history is yet again repeating itself. As with the Downing Street memos, attention is being diverted away from the issue at hand, this time thanks to the Jack Abramoff affair (Emails expose sordid tale of political corruption). And while many commended the New York Times for running the article, some point out that the newspaper had refused to publish the article for an entire year before deciding to send it to print.

By holding back publication of the article for a year, the New York Times was actually playing politics and manipulating public opinion. By not publishing the article when it should have, the newspaper invariably guaranteed the re-election of George W. Bush as president. If the article was published as soon as it was ready, it might have had enough of an effect to tip the election in favour of the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.

Additionally, many question the real reason as to why the New York Times decided to eventually publish the article. Skeptics point to the fact that Risen was about to publish a book (State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration) which would have put the New York Times in an awkward position, for it would have shown that the newspaper had sat on a critical story.

Aside from all this, the importance of the story is that it shows in no uncertain terms what many have been fearing all along: the slide of the US toward an electoral dictatorship. What is even more troubling is President's Bush's unabashed view on the subject. As president, he believes he is above the law and can do whatever he wants. This is as close to the definition of a dictator as you can get.

The Fifth Estate

The public interest in learning about government corruption or corporate wrongdoing is often more important than the legal right of governments and corporations to protect their secrets. Unfortunately, this universal axiom has been turned inside out lately, to the point that those working in the public interest often find themselves ostracised and sometimes penalised. To make matters worse new democracies, such as those within Central and Eastern Europe, accept this state of affairs as only natural and as a part of the democratic process.

In Hungary, for example, government authorities and corporations frequently revert to the "business secret" defense in order to hide details of contracts which may expose government corruption or corporate wrongdoing. Similarly, government, police, and military authorities routinely seal documents for over 50 years in order to protect individuals for the rest of their lives. Also, Hungary's media laws forbids public broadcasters or their audience to mention on air the name of companies or products -- even if these companies or products may be responsible for adverse health effects or have safety concerns associated with them. The reason given for this is that "naming and shaming" is considered to be "unfair advertising".

Unfortunately, such media straitjackets have become quite common. Media outlets worldwide have slowly but surely moved away from investigative journalism and have opted instead for a simplistic approach to contentious issues. This includes the issue of anonymous sources which, in many cases, now does more harm than good.

A journalist's right to protect their confidential sources isn't absolute. It goes without saying that any failure to honor a promise of confidentiality would make it harder in the future to persuade a frightened government employee to talk about corruption in high placeso r a worried worker to reveal corporate crimes. Nevertheless, protecting the identities of confidential sources is a journalistic right that should be recognised by the courts, but only when it protects genuine whistle-blowers, not when it shields government or corporate wrongdoing. Thus, if someone breaks the law by giving information to a journalist, or reveals to a journalist that they have committed a crime, the journalist has to be able to argue that in that specific case, protecting the source's identity serves the public more than bringing the source to trial.

The confusion over this rather straightforward principle has allowed governments lately to use the media for their own purpose, in order to try and manipulate public opinion and even define what the public interest is -- all without the general public's apparent knowledge. As a result, the challenge democratic societies now face is to learn how best protect themselves from this subtle form of mind control.

With help from the mass media, those in positions of political and economic power or influence will continually seek to implant their messages into our minds, whether it's for our good or not. Thus, if we don't take responsibility for what goes into our minds, someone else will. This is the most serious challenge that a democracy can face, for when a government can manipulate how a person thinks, that person no longer lives in a democracy.

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