Another Black Day for American Democracy

miller“The freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries, but those with an independent press that works every day to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know.”

That was the statement that NYT reporter Judith Miller read to the judge as she was convicted of contempt of court and sent to jail yesterday, where she will remain until she either breaks her oath of confidentiality over the name of her source of information on the infamous Valerie Plame leak, or until  Bush’s grand jury which is demanding that breach finishes its work, probably at the end of this year.

Miller, whose journalistic history is uneven, is a hero. While many countries and most American states have laws protecting a journalist’s right not to reveal their sources, American grand juries have a history of trampling on civil liberties in their often-ideological zeal to reveal ‘the truth’. Such juries are truly frightening to those of us who live in real democracies, because their power is virtually unlimited, and they are not bound by the constitution or by any standards of reasonableness or common decency. They are vestiges of the regimes that have given us inquisitions, McCarthyist witch hunts, and reckless, power-crazed organizations like Nazi brownshirts and the US Homeland Security thugs, and, more recently, the ‘outsourced torture’ chambers of the third world and Guantanamo. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that is what is wrong with ‘grand juries’.

Why is the right of a journalist not to reveal their sources so important, such a bedrock provision of any true democracy? Because whistleblowers, the kind that bring down corrupt regimes like Richard Nixon’s and Enron’s, will only dare to confront fraud, corruption and even greater atrocities committed by those with wealth and power, if there is some reasonable chance of protection for them, some balancing of power so that they aren’t automatically thrown to the very lions whose crimes they are revealing. History is full of the stories of martyrs who died trying to reform corrupt organizations, and one of the objectives of democracy is to eliminate the need for such martyrdom, and to enlist the media as an additional check against abuse of power and untrammeled corruption. In most of the third world, whistleblowers risk, and often lose, their lives — and often their sacrifices are in vain, only emboldening the abusers further when they realize their impunity.

It is for that reason that compelling journalists to reveal their sources violates a number of international laws, including those of the OAS, of which the US is a member, but as we have seen repeatedly from the Bush administration, the current US government considers itself above and not bound by international law. They play right into tyants’ hands wordwide when these tyrants can point out that the world’s only superpower and self-proclaimed defender of democracy routinely ignores the law when it is not perceived to be in its self-interest.

But even in the West, whistleblowers usually regret their decision to be good citizens and report wrong-doing. As I reported in an earlier article, whistleblowers often face skepticism and ostracism from their own friends and co-workers, huge legal bills, armies of opposing lawyers, intimidation, threats, loss of job, and destruction of their livelihoods and families. The deck is stacked against them, whether they confront public or private-sector wrongdoing. The actions of the current grand jury will be the last straw — no whistleblower will risk losing their confidentiality to a grand jury, and no reporter will risk long prison sentences simply for honoring a promise of confidence. It’s another dark day for American democracy.

For examples of the type of critical work that whistleblowers do, see the Government Accountability Project and the National Whistleblower Center.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Another Black Day for American Democracy

  1. Balbina says:

    I think the “sacrifice” is not in vain, because without couragous people going their own way we would not even have this kind of “weak” democraties. With weak I mean that the democraties are not really working, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, but it is still better than other forms. BTW: Great Weblog!Balbina

  2. natasha says:

    If a shrink believes that a patient is going to injure themselves or another, they are required to notify the appropriate authorities and seek intervention. For a criminal defense lawyer to defend their client as though they were innocent, that lawyer must not hear anything from the client that suggests otherwise.I respect the importance of the press’ ability to maintain confidentiality with their sources, but Miller is a witness to an exceptionally serious crime that’s somewhere in the vicinity of treason, a crime which Novak (and god only knows why his a** isn’t in the slammer) actually aided and abetted. Why does she have greater privilege than an attorney or a doctor, especially in a case that could have put many lives at risk?

  3. Randall says:

    Dave, I agree with your well-written story, except for one point. To say it is a “dark day for American democracy” is to make the assumption that there is a democracy in the first place. Despite the years (generations) of marketing from the US propaganda machines (Hollywood, Madison Ave., etc.) there is no democracy here. You’d do your readers a favour to dispell the myth outright. As Leonard Cohen so eloquently sings “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A…”, though probably not anytime soon.

  4. sampo says:

    To liken the person who comitted this act of treason to heroic whistleblowers of yore is a serious misinterpretation of the whole thing. This source in the white house was not exposing government corruption or fraud. This person was using a reporter(s) to damage the united states and in so doing ruined many years and many millions of dollars worth of painstakingly cultivated intelligence assets. Miller et al were pawns in this persons cynical attempt to get revenge on joe wilson. That you make no distinction between the scenarios is disheartening. I also think that reporter must be granted a federal shield from this sort of coercion, but i am far from thinking that it should be an all encompassing free pass to allow this sort of craven political misbehavior.I have already written to my senator about bringing a federal shield law to the floor. I am also not holding my breath given the current political and security climate.

  5. Jasen Robillard says:

    My zeal for the truth never wanted to know about the identity of certain secret operatives presumably keeping this continent safe. What does the public have to gain from learning that Joe Wilson’s wife is a CIA agent? Nothing! Stating that Miller was an accessory to treason may be a bit of an overstatement but selling Miller’s contempt of court story as that of national hero, a martyr attempting to protect democracy and the rights of whistleblowers/journalists is a serious misrepresentation. In what way does blowing the cover of a CIA agent equate in terms of nobility to contronting fraud and corruption? Or was Joe Wilson and/or his wife involved in some evil scheme I’m not aware of? I’m all for protecting the rights of journalists but it seems to me like we’re fighting this from the wrong side. Have you asked yourself why this “source” wanted to uncover this confidential, some say treasonous information through the media? I personally think there was more to it than retaliation vis-a-vis Joe Wilson.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    It’s interesting to see the split in sentiment over this case largely coming down to the issue of what she is trying to protect. That’s the reason I chose this case — because it illustrates that sometimes to defend a principle you also need to defend its application in ignorant, offensive, even dubious circumstances. I was trying to be subtle when I described Miller’s journalistic history as ‘uneven’, and I am as appalled as others at the fact Novak and some other people have escaped recriminations for their part in this escapade. I’ve been similarly ambivalent over free speech rights for wackos and religious fanatics, but ultimately I don’t think we can afford to be choosy about when principles apply and when they don’t. If government and corporations are allowed to bully reporters to ‘out’ whistleblowers, there will be no whistleblowing, it’s as simple as that. And in countries where there is no whistleblowing, corruption prevails and democracy is a sham. If the grand jury wins this one (and it looks as if they will), it will be open season on anyone who dares confront corruption. Of course some of the ‘sources’ that shield laws protect are liars, manipulators, and selfish — and may even exploit the protection to further a personal agenda. But that abuse is outweighed by the benefit that shield laws produce in cases where they enable exposure of massively corrupt government and corporate individuals and groups, even at the pinnacles of power.

  7. Indigo says:

    Yes, Dave. And also, let us keep in mind that our laws are supposed to be built on the tenet that it is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent man. I connect that to this case in that we are willing to use the law to protect someone who is doing something unethical (outing CIA operatives, for example) if that is what is necessary for the law to still be effective when it is needed to protect those who are doing something noble. We don’t get to pick and choose unfortunately. And maybe fortunately, because who of us truly knows what information this reporter got from her source. She never ran a story, just investigated one. Maybe her ethics were in place defending us. Either way, I’ll let her go to protect the one coming after her who is bent on protecting us by revealing the truth we need to know. And that is by far the prevalence of how the shield law is called upon.

  8. Jon Husband says:

    I think Judith Miller is a criminal and is protecting someone .. either Bolton or Cheney, but probably Cheney .. I think she had a material hand in the whole Plame/Wilson affair through her deep involvement with spreading the false meme of the existence of WMD before the White House judged it necessary to discredit Joe Wilson, and I think she is cleverly hiding behind the role of journalist and the power of the NY Times. I don’t think criminals should be entitled to use legal structures and principles so cleverly.

  9. I’m saddened to see you make this error of judgment Dave. The value of the law is that it be flexible and interpretable within variable contexts, not absolute and beyond interpretation as you suggest it be. The many state “shield” laws (in the USA) are in effect to protect “whistleblowers.” They are not in effect to protect criminals or those who would use the press to commit crimes. In this case it appears that NYT reporter Judith Miller has been part of an orchestrated effort to violate federal law by outing secret CIA agent Valerie Plame, compromising not only Plame, but her vast array of domestic and foreign contacts as well. The purpose was to send a message, and to heighten the chill in Washington against anyone daring to speak out against the Bush administration. In this case the real whistleblower was Plame’s husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, who exposed Bush’s “yellow cake” lie in a 2003 NYT column. His punishment for telling the truth? Apparently Carl Rove got on the phone with a string of reporters, including Miller, and committed a (possibly treasonous) federal crime. Rove is the alleged criminal, Wilson is the whistleblower, Plame (along with each of her contacts who were exposed when her secret identity was revealed) is the victim of Bush’s retaliation against Wilson, and Judith Miller is the cowardly reporter that Rove knew would cooperate with his plan of coercion and suppression of the truth. Remember that Judith Miller was complicit in underinvestigating, underreporting, and generally misleading the American public about our need to invade Iraq. The NYT management forced her to publicly apologize for that. Here, she has knowingly witnessed and participated in the obstruction of the investigation of a federal crime. Her heroic posture is a thin disguise for her own deep and wanton cowardice and equally contemptuous disregard for the truth. No hero she.

  10. Bruce Winter says:

    The Miller case is an orchestrated distraction. The tactic is quite clever. By extending the original political intimidation strategy to the press, the reformation to mass public relations continues. We’ll put you in jail if you don’t tell our truth.

  11. Yenayer says:

    I am not sure that Judith Miller can ever be a hero. She is one ( the one who played the most important part ) of the journalists who helped convey the Bush administration propaganda about the WMD in Irak to the american people. In fact, she is a very bad journalist. How Can a journalist relay on a single source ( Ahmad Chalabi – pushed in the front of the scene by the DoD ) and never have a single material proof on what she is told, in a matter as serious as a war ?

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, I’m clearly outvoted on this one. I guess you have to pick your battles, and this perhaps was a poor one to pick. I agree with you that Miller is not an admirable person, not consistent in her defence of whistle-blowers, and a person of dubious judgement — and probably not a very good reporter. But I still believe the principle of protecting whistleblowers is critical to healthy democracy and curtailing corporate misdeeds, and the dangers of some unscrupulous people abusing such protections are outweighed by the value the honest whistleblowers do for us all — if we support their courage.

Comments are closed.