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Reporter detained, told to reveal source at State Department briefing

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Jul 15, 2002    

Reporter detained, told to reveal source at State Department briefing

  • U.S. officials and guards held a National Review reporter for questioning on his access to confidential document on the U.S. visa policy in Saudi Arabia.

Guards and a federal agent detained a reporter after a State Department briefing on July 12, demanding that he disclose a source and answer questions about his recent reporting on a State Department document.

The reporter, Joel Mowbray, said he was held for a half an hour while officials questioned him.

The briefing concerned a classified cable about the Saudi visa-issuing system, which Mowbray had reported on critically in the National Review. After testifying, Mowbray was stopped by an unidentified woman and four armed guards upon leaving the briefing. Soon, the 26-year-old reporter was confronted and questioned by a plainclothes agent from the Diplomatic Security Service.

“It was surreal; it started out rather benignly,” Mowbray said. “But then they asked me how I got the cable and where I got it from, and I realized they were looking for my source.”

Mowbray said he denied having the confidential cable with him and was not searched. The armed guards prevented him from leaving the building throughout the questioning.

The reporter used his cellular phone to call his editors and an attorney, during which time a security guard told Mowbray he was, in fact, not being detained.

Minutes later, when he tried to walk away, another guard physically stopped him, saying, “Now you are being detained,” according to Mowbray.

Mowbray was released about 15 minutes later, with no explanation. Mowbray said his magazine had contacted the department during this time.

The Associated Press reported that an anonymous department official said no employees or visitors are allowed to exit the building with classified documents, and Mowbray should have “expect[ed] to be questioned.”

Editors defend Mowbray’s possession of the papers, saying he should legally be able to leave the building with anything he entered with. Mowbray said he brought the cable in order to juxtapose its contents against what the State Department claims it had included. Earlier National Review articles say the cable sent to the State Department from U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan calls for an end to the Saudi visa program that may have allowed three of the September 11 hijackers to enter the United States.

Although the contents are considered classified, both Mobray and The Post reported on the same document earlier in the week. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized the National Review’s coverage of the visa policy just before the detainment, calling for Mowbray to “be careful about the facts.” But the reporter defended his work, saying there was no need for Boucher to “smear the reporting.”

National Review Editor Rich Lowry wrote a letter to Richard Boucher of the State Department, also published in the National Review July 15, defending his reporter’s writing and asking for explanation for the department’s “thuggish” attempt to extract information from a reporter.

He said Mowbray posed no security threat by possessing the document, nor had it been kept secret, so, “the only reason, then, to hold Mr. Mowbray against his will in the building must have been to intimidate a young reporter who had made your life difficult.”

Authorities are investigating Saudi visa fraud and a top department official, Assistant Secretary of State Mary Ryan, was asked to resign July 10. Mowbray has been vocal on this issue, even outside of the pages of the magazine and on its Web site. He testified at a House Government Reform subcommittee last month, at which The Post reported he called the visa office “a bloated bureaucracy trapped in the death grip of inertia.”

Although Mowbray was shocked by the detainment, he said he will continue writing about the visa system, using confirmed, but undisclosed, sources.

“They will never deter me,” he said.

CL


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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