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Profile: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was a participant or observer in the following events:
Michael Ashcroft. [Source: Conservative Home Blogs.com]Former Drug Enforcement Administration analyst Jonathan Randel is sentenced to a year in prison on felony theft charges surrounding his passing of DEA information to Toby Follett, a London Times investigative reporter. Randel’s prosecution is unusual because he passed unclassified information to the reporter, and none of his actions threatened national security. The prosecutor of Randel’s case says flatly that Randel was taken to court to discourage other government employees from cooperating with the press. Additionally, there is wide speculation that Randel’s prosecution may have something to do with the target of Follett’s investigation, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Ashcroft (no relation to Attorney General John Ashcroft) was under investigation by the DEA because of his ownership of a bank in Belize that was a known outlet for laundered drug money. Randel provided Follett with information that was not classified, but was categorized as “sensitive.” Times editor Robert Thomson says that Randel’s prosecution is distressing because “[c]onfidential information is passed to journalists every day.” However, Justice Department prosecutor William Duffey, a former deputy independent counsel under Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, says that Randel’s prosecution was designed to warn other government workers of the dangers of cooperating with the media.
'Particularly Alarming' - Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says, “What is particularly alarming is that this is not classified information and is probably disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act. This is the kind of thing that journalists ask for every day.” She says that other, similar actions by other public employees have been addressed with reprimands and letters in their personnel files. “But jail?” she asks. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes in 2004, “Clearly this was a warning aimed at potential whistleblowers in the federal bureaucracy, advising them to keep quiet, or risk jail.” [New York Times, 1/16/2003; Dean, 2004, pp. 67-69]
No Precedent - Neither Duffey nor anyone in the DEA can cite any other cases where the government has prosecuted an employee for leaking confidential but unclassified information. Lawyer Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says that such a prosecution is rare in the extreme. If such a broad standard were applied to other whistleblowers, then charges could well be brought against FBI agent Coleen Rowley, whose revelations of FBI mismanagement and obduracy before the 9/11 attacks earned her a citation as one of Time Magazine’s “Persons of the Year.” Journalism professor Catherine Manegold calls Randel’s prosecution “not too different from McCarthyism.… If we are confined to official, pre-vetted statements, that’s a terribly dangerous place to be.” [Fulton County Daily Report, 1/15/2003]
Protecting Lord Ashcroft - Dean will say that the Justice Department’s prosecution of Randel was extraordinary, writing that the Department “threw the book at him.” It filed a twenty-count indictment against Randel, including 16 separate charges for each time Randel used a DEA computer to locate information on Ashcroft, and characterizing each computer usage as a separate scheme to “defraud” the US government. If convicted of all charges and given the maximum possible sentence, Randel would have faced up to 580 years in prison—a prime reason, Dean believes, that Randel accepted a plea bargain to a single charge of felony theft. According to Dean, Randel strongly believes that the Justice Department prosecuted him to protect Ashcroft, a wealthy Conservative lord living in the United States. [Dean, 2004, pp. 67-69] According to his attorney, Steven Sadow, Randel thinks “Ashcroft was getting a free ride for crooked activities. That’s why he did what he did.” Ashcroft has filed a lawsuit for defamation of character against the Times over its charges that he was involved in drug trafficking and money laundering; the Times’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, settled the case by printing a front-page apology to Ashcroft (see December 8, 1999). [Fulton County Daily Report, 1/15/2003] Ashcroft is also being probed over his potentially illegal dealings with the US toy manufacturer Tyco, and is suspected of participating in racketeering, securities fraud, tax fraud, and/or falsification of records. [Dean, 2004, pp. 67-69]
Entity Tags: Robert Thomson, William Duffey, US Department of Justice, Steven Sadow, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Lucy Dalglish, London Times, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Catherine Manegold, Michael Ashcroft, Drug Enforcement Administration, Jonathan Randel, Kevin Goldberg, John Dean, Toby Follett
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Ahmed Alnami’s youth hosteling card found in the Flight 93 crash site. [Source: FBI]During the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui (see March 6-May 4, 2006), the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes a significant portion of the exhibits used during the trial. [Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 12/4/2006] Previously, only a few items of the evidence linking the attacks to al-Qaeda were made public. For example, the 9/11 Commission’s Terrorist Travel Monograph contained 18 documents of the alleged hijackers and their associates. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 171-195 ] The published exhibits include:
Items belonging to the alleged hijackers that were recovered from the crash sites and Logan airport;
Some details of the hijackers’ movements in the US;
Graphic photos of dead victims and body parts in the Pentagon and WTC ruins;
Substitutions for testimony from some of the main plotters such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed;
The missing chapter from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General’s review of the FBI’s performance before 9/11 (see June 9, 2005); and
FBI and CIA documents. [Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 12/4/2006]
At the end of July, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, publishes more of the exhibits used in the trial. The additionally published exhibits include, for example:
Documents of the hijackers found at the crash sites and Logan airport, such as Satam Al Suqami’s passport (see After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001), Ahmed Alnami’s youth hosteling card, and old correspondence between Mohamed Atta and the German authorities;
Recordings of calls made by the passengers from the flights and recordings of the hijacker pilots talking to the passengers;
Documents about the alleged hijackers prepared by the FBI such as a True Name Usage Chart for 2001 and chronologies for eleven of the hijackers from August 16-September 11, 2001;
Documents from the hijackers’ flight schools;
A small sample of the hijackers’ banking and phone records.
However, some of the exhibits are not disclosed. For example, the cockpit voice recording from United 93 is sealed and only a transcript is made available. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, 7/31/2006]
The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. [Christian Science Monitor, 2/1/2008]
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009] The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” [New York Times, 3/5/2009]
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). [Washington Post, 3/15/2009; Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/2009]
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign will say: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010] CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).
Entity Tags: Clarence Thomas, US Department of Justice, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Scott Nelson, US Supreme Court, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Citizens United, Barbara Olson, American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Kennedy, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, Gregg P. Leslie, Nick Nyhart, Edwin Kneedler, David Souter, Federal Election Commission, James Bopp, Jr, John Paul Stevens, David Bossie, John G. Roberts, Jr, Jeffrey Toobin, Malcolm Stewart
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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