New York, NY, October 3, 2006—PEN President Ron Chernow brought PEN’s concerns over surveillance and threats against the press to Washington last week, delivering PEN’s press freedom petition on Capitol Hill and opening a National Press Club program that revealed how far government is reaching into the lives and work of journalists, writers, and librarians. 

“We’re here today to register our grave concern that the balance of power between citizens and government is tipping too far toward government under the banner of national security,” Chernow declared in remarks introducing the National Press club program. That program, sponsored by the Campaign for Reader Privacy and entitled “Protecting Privacy, Challenging Secrecy, and Standing Up for the First Amendment,” featured eight panelists who had, in Chernow’s words, “courted great risks and faced government reprisals either for prying loose vital information from the government or for shielding reader privacy from official intrusions.”

James Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who broke major stories on National Security Agency and international banking surveillance, spoke of the growing threat government leak investigations pose to reporters. “In the past, there was a kind of gentlemen’s agreement between government and the press,” Risen said. “We knew that they can conduct leak investigations of our stories, but everybody also knew that those leak investigations never went anywhere. There was a sporting element to it. But the sporting element’s been taken out, and now it’s deadly serious.”

Risen, who has been threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act for his reporting, noted that the First Amendment precludes an Official Secrets Act like those in effect in Great Britain and other countries, but said he believes targeting journalists for prosecution is a back-door way of enacting such an Act. “That has essentially the same effect,” he suggested. “It means the end result of reporting on National Security is jail time for a reporter.”

Biographer and George Washington University Journalism Program Director Mark Feldstein said his own experience earlier this year with FBI agents confirmed for him that investigators are now willing to exert pressure on writers and journalists first, rather than as a last resort, as they had in the past. Feldstein, who is working on a biography of Jack Anderson, was visited by FBI agents earlier this year who wanted to search all of the deceased columnist’s files for any classified material he had been leaked throughout his long career. Commenting that his own experience was in some ways “laughable,” Feldstein said it is nevertheless part “of a much broader assault that this administration is making on the news media and on the public’s right to know – the most concerted assault on the media since the days of Richard Nixon.”

“This matters because the media is a conduit between the people and the government,” Feldstein insisted. “It matters because our government, by cracking down on the media, is cracking down on all of us, denying us the right to have the information we need in a democracy to make informed decisions.”

For ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross and Reporter Richard Esposito, the fact that they were the target of government surveillance itself was revealed to them in a leak. “Rich and I were following in the footsteps of [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest, reporting on the CIA’s rendition program and secret prisons.” Ross recounted. “A short while after we did our stories, Rich got word through a source, ‘They know who you’re talking to. They’ve got your phone records.’”

“There was no subpoena served on ABC News for our phone records, no subpoena served on us, to this day I can’t tell you how they would know,” said Ross. “The FBI has denied to us that they used National Security Letters to go after us, but I don’t know any other way they could get our information.”

Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, George Christian and Janet Nocek, four Connecticut librarians, described the Orwellian world they entered when the FBI served them with a National Security Letter seeking patrons’ records. “The National Security letter was a shock to us,” said Chase, speaking for the group. “If we had received a proper court order, we would have complied with that without any problem. But what we received was not anything like that. The letter we received had no court order with it. It included no oversight from any other agency. The FBI can decide who they want all by themselves. This National Security Letter can be served on anyone; you do not have to be suspected of committing any criminal act to receive one. People who are asked to provide the information are under a gag order that prevents them from telling anyone that they have ever received this letter.”

In their case, the gag served an insidious purpose. “During the Patriot Act reauthorization debate, we were not permitted to contradict government claims that they did not use the Patriot Act to get library records, that there were no laws protecting the confidentiality of library records, and that no one’s right had ever been violated by the Act.”

In his opening remarks, Ron Chernow noted that for PEN and for the other members of the Campaign for Reader Privacy, the panelists, “far from seeming like traitors or scoundrels, are champions in the best American tradition of asserting the public’s right to know.” Throughout the program, all of the participants underscored their commitments to protecting privacy and challenging government secrecy. As Brian Ross put it, “Again and again we are finding aggressive efforts to go after us, and it does have a chilling effect. I’m offended by it, I can feel the pressure, I think we can all feel the pressure that is on us. And yet,” he added, “we continue to operate.”

After the program, Chernow and PEN Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems visited Capitol Hill, where they presented Representative Adam Schiff, one of the co-founders of the Congressional Caucus on Press Freedom, with a copy of PEN’s petition demanding greater respect for press freedom in the United States. PEN thanked Representative Schiff for his leadership in raising awareness of press freedom issues on the Hill.

A response to calls by members of Congress to prosecute newspapers and individual reporters for espionage and treason and to a non-binding Congressional resolution demanding the “cooperation” of the media in the War on Terror, PEN’s petition asks elected officials and all U.S. citizens to reaffirm America’s support for a free and independent press. Copies of the petition, signed by 1,127 PEN Members and supporters, were also mailed to all members of the House and Senate during the week.

Siems also met with Senator Arlen Specter’s Judiciary Committee staff to discuss the progress of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2006. Senator Specter is one of the original sponsors of the bill, which would give reporters limited privilege to protect confidential sources in federal courts. Siems underscored PEN’s support for federal shield protections, and also shared PEN’s serious concerns over detainee and surveillance bills making their way through Congress. 
 

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org