Press freedom under threat by a runaway state

Persecution, detention and decades in prison is the price whistle-blowers pay for exposing the surveillance regime

By John Cusack  /  The Guardian

Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - Page 9

Another week and another wave of stories on the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the unconstitutional, out-of-control surveillance state hits the digital newsstands, showing once again why the tide is turning. Some revelations are so surreal that it is hard not to assume that they are satire.

Meanwhile, despite the massive smear campaign against NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, opinion polls stand clearly with the truth-tellers. People know that they have a right to know what the government is doing in their name. State secrecy is on the run, while US privacy, long rumored dead, is alive and kicking and wants the fight out in the open.

Last month, David Miranda — the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has written a string of stories based on Snowden’s leaks — was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport for almost nine hours while on a journalistic mission paid for by the Guardian. His electronics were seized and he was forced, under threat of imprisonment, to hand over his social media passwords.

He was detained under the UK Terrorism Act for an act of journalism. This was an assault on press freedom that should make every reporter shudder, no matter their opinion of the NSA. The message was sent.

Perhaps worse, it was learned a few days later that the US authorities had been given a “heads up” by their British counterparts that they were planning to detain Miranda. The US government did not lift a finger to stop this blatant attack on journalism and press freedom, even as it has been moving heaven and earth to bring Snowden back to the US. That should be a scandal in its own right.

Now the US owes its citizens and the international community another “heads up” on whether it will do the same to journalists working on NSA stories who are entering the US. Put simply, will US Attorney General Eric Holder, the US Department of State and the FBI promise safe passage to journalists, their spouses and loved ones, and vow not to interfere with their reporting on these NSA stories? To date, the answer has been far from clear.

Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two US journalists at the center of these stories, have been doing their reporting from Brazil and Germany respectively. The US government has not, so far, stated publicly whether they can enter the country without receiving the same outrageous treatment that Miranda received, or worse.

Can they practice journalism in the US without their hard drives being confiscated, without an unconstitutional search and seizure taking place at the border? Are they free to enter the country without being served a subpoena, or even jailed? Unlike Britain, the US is supposed to be bound by the First Amendment of its Constitution, which exists to bar such treatment of journalists.

I should note that I consider both Glenn and Laura friends, as we all sit on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF). The reason this should concern not only the FPF, but everyone in the US is not because of any specific people; we must look at these assaults from a broader perspective.

We recognize that when the individual’s rights are being violated it means that my rights, our rights, are being violated too. What happens to individuals in the US happens to the First Amendment. Our politicians must have forgotten the basics we all learned in high-school civics class. That is what the FPF was founded for: We needed a movement protecting the First Amendment in its broadest reach.

As FPF cofounder and iconic whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg told me earlier this month: “I’ve been waiting 40 years for Edward Snowden and his revelations are the most important in US history, including the Pentagon Papers.”

Despite the importance of his revelations, the US purposefully stranded Snowden in Russia by canceling his passport while he was in transit from Hong Kong, essentially forcing him into exile.

We already know the government will attempt to intimidate and crush whistle-blowers who challenge national security state orthodoxy. Genuflect and get in line, or pay the heavy cost. Look no further than Thomas Drake, Bill Binney and J Kirk Wiebe, three NSA whistle-blowers whose homes were raided and lives were destroyed for the cardinal sin of informing the US public about crimes committed by their government.

It is hard to blame Snowden for not wanting to come back and rot in a US jail. Chelsea Manning spent three years in jail awaiting trial, nearly a year of it in torturous conditions. She has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaks exposing war crimes which have been almost universally acknowledged as having caused no real harm to the US.

Snowden may suspect that his rights would not be protected, given that a prosecution under the US’ Espionage Act would leave him no way to mount a public interest defense if he came back to stand trial. Often we export our ideals, sometimes rightfully, sometimes tragically. Now when we do so, our action is drenched in irony: Russia is providing safe haven to a US whistle-blower and east Berlin, where the Stasi once roamed, is now where journalists and privacy rights advocates feel safe to work.

Not so in the US these days, it seems. Whether whistleblower, source or journalist, if you expose crimes you become the hunted. What must students and young people think when they see some of the brightest minds — and the fiercest watchdogs — of a generation unable to practice journalism in the US?

If we want to turn the tide against the national security state, we need to stand with those souls brave enough to confront its crimes. Just two months before Britain gave the US its absurd “heads up” about Miranda’s detention, Holder vowed not to prosecute journalists, saying: “The Department [of Justice] has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.”

Will Holder, as chief law enforcement officer in the US, now go on record to say that he will guarantee the safe return and safe passage of journalists who have exercised their rights under the First Amendment? Or should we now conclude that the US is willing to create a generation of exiled watchdogs who are trying to hold their government accountable from afar?

John Cusack is a filmmaker, writer and a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation