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White House, Pentagon attack war-time leaks to press

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

With the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks scarcely a month away, U.S. state, military and intelligence officials continue to cast wary eyes on American journalists attempting to cover the war in Afghanistan, antiterrorism efforts and prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the meantime, Israel lowered some of its ongoing restrictions on reporters covering the battles between Israeli and Palestinian fighters but most remain in place.

Stateside, White House and military officials have become especially concerned about information leaked to the American press.

Attorney General John Ashcroft on June 21 launched an investigation after several news reports concerning two messages intercepted by the National Security Agency that gave cryptic warnings about the September 11 attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney, angered by such leaks, blamed Congress for allowing such reports to become public.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a July 12 memo said the leaks and subsequent press coverage “are damaging our country’s ability to stop terrorist acts and is putting American lives at risk.”

On July 22, Rumsfeld urged Pentagon employees to search for and reveal the name of a defense official who leaked an alleged U.S. plan to invade Iraq to the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

“It’s inexcusable,” Rumsfeld said during a press briefing. “And they ought to be in jail.”

Rumsfeld, a consistent and unabashed critic of leaks, said officials should understand that their actions severely hurt the U.S. effort in the war on terrorism.

“I think that anyone who has a position where they touch a war plan has an obligation to not leak it to the press or anybody else,” Rumsfeld said. “Because it kills people.”

In the July 12 memo attached to an unclassified assessment of leaks during the country’s war on terrorism prepared by the CIA, Rumsfeld denounced the improper disclosure of classified information and encouraged defense staff members to put an end to them.

“I have spoken publicly and privately, countless times, about the danger of leaking classified information,” Rumsfeld wrote. “It is wrong. It is against the law. It costs the lives of Americans. It diminishes our country’s chance for success.”

The CIA’s report, in part, determined that the Al-Qaeda terrorist group relied heavily on public information and press reports to help it evade U.S. intelligence operatives.

“A growing body of reporting indicates that al-Qa’ida planners have learned much about our counterterrorist intelligence capabilities from U.S. and foreign media,” the report said. “Information obtained from captured detainees has revealed that al-Qa’ida operatives are extremely security conscious and have altered their practices in response to what they have learned from the press about our capabilities.”

The report further stated that such disclosures jeopardized sensitive intelligence operations even before September 11. Such losses, it concluded, exact considerable costs and time to rebuild.

Such heightened sense of security might explain why federal agents detained National Review reporter Joel Mowbray on July 12, demanding that he disclose his source for a story about a classified cable concerning the Saudi visa-issuing system.

Mowbray refused.

Later, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) demanded an explanation from Secretary of State Colin Powell for detaining and questioning a reporter.

“We have seen too often that documents are routinely, and unnecessarily, classified as confidential or above — particularly in cases where the information does not involve national security but instead is embarrassing to a government agency,” the two lawmakers wrote in their letter to Powell.

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Military officials erect more barriers to press coverage at Guantanamo

American and foreign reporters continue to complain about the heightened restrictions on coverage of 363 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Last April, U.S. military officials transferred the captives to a new, permanent prison that is far from view from journalists on the base.

At the original detainee prison camp called Camp X-ray, journalists could view the detainees in their chain-link cells and often write about their detention. But at the new Camp Delta, journalists have no contact or viewing of detainees.

“What is at stake is the destiny of these prisoners who could face the death penalty with the military tribunals,” said Regis Bourgeat of Reporters without Borders on May 2, the day before World Freedom Day. “If America wants to be seen as the defender of human rights, that image has to be protected by allowing press freedom.”

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Israeli forces ease restrictions on press amid fighting with Palestine

After several months of fighting between Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian fighters, Israeli officials lifted on June 28 a ban keeping foreign journalists from entering major West Bank towns.

Journalists found considerable obstacles in covering the initial months of battle, including the risk of being shot. Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid was shot in the shoulder on March 31 as he covered fighting near Ramallah.

Israel cited safety as its primary reason for barring reporters from combat zones, but critics say officials merely wanted to subdue potential criticism. Officials threatened to revoke the press credentials of those violating closure orders.

“Anyone walking around is a combatant,” Daniel Seaman, director of Israel’s Government Press Office told the Associated Press.

“You don’t want journalists shot, do you? I don’t think it’s an issue to be discussed.” — PT