Bob Giles, Curator of the Nieman Foundation, addressed participants of the “Mapping the News” conference at American University on September 28, 2002. Giles underscored the essential role of watchdog journalism and described the difficulties being encountered by journalists because of government actions. He also suggested important questions that journalists should be asking.

What follows are Giles’s remarks:

In last Sunday’s New York Times, I came across a piece with the headline, “A Place to Find Out For Yourself About the War.” The story, by Eric Umansky, described a Web site for a military watchdog group called that had published detailed satellite photographs of a United States military installation in Qatar, tracking changes that foretold a buildup for a possible attack on Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was said to have grumbled about it. But the site was clearly beyond the reach of the Pentagon and its intense efforts to control information. As I surfed the site and viewed several satellite images that had been posted, and then thought about Rumsfeld’s discomfort, this struck me as a powerful example of a free and independent press. A free and independent press is an important cornerstone of our democracy to keep alive in these days that are being described as a time of national crisis.

I am not a student of mapping or satellite technology, but it was painfully clear to me from the background material sent to me by Chris Simpson [the American University professor who organized the conference] and from re-reading his revealing piece in Nieman Reports last winter, that the productive and informative use the global press has made of satellite images has been aggressively shut down by a government fearful that media access to this information would provide aide and comfort to our enemies.

Elaborate new regulations have given the U.S. government what is being described as “shutter control” over U.S.-licensed satellites. Some experts are suggesting that these regulations ignore a core principal that has governed such circumstances in the past: that the government must make a compelling case of clear and present danger in disallowing satellite images to be sold commercially for news and, perhaps, other uses.

I noted this morning in your sessions the contrast between the desire of the policymakers for secrecy and the impulse to get information out that was expressed by the representatives from the Census Bureau, the Department of Agriculture, and the United States Geological Survey. The Bush administration’s determined efforts to control information to which the public is entitled and should have is part of a larger pattern of restrictions in the name of security that is affecting civil liberties and the treatment of noncitizens from Arab countries.

Government Information Is More Difficult to Get

Last October, the month following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued guidelines for how government agencies were to handle information requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA, which first became law in the 1960’s, enables journalists and the public to access papers, documents and memoranda from various government agencies.

There has never been an easy relationship between the public and the press and the officials in government offices responsible for responding in a timely way to FOIA requests. But the meaning of the Ashcroft memo signals even more difficult times ahead. He directed federal agencies to consider national security, enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, protecting sensitive business information and, not least, preserving personal privacy in determining whether to release information under FOIA.

It did not escape notice that informing the public or serving the public’s right to know was not among the priorities Ashcroft instructed government officials to consider. He promised the Justice Department would stand behind any agency official whose decision to deny FOIA access was based on any of the new priorities.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors met with senior officials responsible for administering FOIA and were reassured that this was not a major policy change but simply a “natural shift” under a new administration and should not result in significant change in how requests for information are handled.

The reality, as we’ve observed over the past year, is quite different. These comments from a recent article in the American Journalism Review emphasize this reality. John Dean, the famous Watergate figure, has called the Bush administration “startlingly Nixonian” in its passion for secrecy. William Powers of the National Journal has written, “This administration keeps secrets like nobody in Washington has kept secrets—maybe ever.” And journalist Bill Moyers said recently, “Not only has George W. Bush eviscerated the Presidential Records Act and FOIA, but has clamped a lid on public access across the board.”

We’re familiar with the demonstrated evidence, well reported in the press, of how executive powers are being employed in wartime climate in Washington.

  • Tracking down, holding for questioning, and refusing to identify publicly immigrants, mostly from Middle Eastern countries.
  • Monitoring conversations between some people in federal custody and their lawyers.
  • Establishing military tribunals to try foreigners accused of terrorism. Initially the tribunals were to be secret, but the administration relented under pressure from the public, the press, and Congress.
  • Closing deportation hearings.

The President recently signed legislation that jails or fines journalists who publish sensitive leaks—a decision that essentially revives the Official Secrets Act that President Clinton vetoed as being “well intentioned” but over-broad and so it might “unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.”

The Homeland Security Act [signed into law by President Bush on November 25, 2002] has serious implications for access by the press and public. It would create an exemption from FOIA for any information voluntarily submitted to the government. It would provide corporate immunity from civil procedures when information is voluntarily submitted to the government, and it would preempt state and local openness laws when the federal government gives states information. And in connection with the establishment of the White House Office of Homeland Security, the Office of Management and Budget has been instructed to create a new classification for information. Something called “sensitive but unclassified.” The idea is to keep information away from the public and the press without formally classifying it as secret.

There is no definition for “sensitive” nor is there any information about who would have the responsibility for declaring information “sensitive but unclassified.” Indeed, the idea of keeping unclassified information away from the public is not new. A recent article in a publication called Secrecy News reported that there are “at least a dozen distinct systems of unclassified information control, including various provisions implementing the International Traffic in Arms Regulation and the Export Administration Act,” to name two. The article notes that some of these provisions impose penalties for disclosure of unclassified information that are more severe than for disclosure of classified information. A new set of regulations to further hide unclassified information would create an additional layer of public information intended to be kept out of reach of Americans.

This pattern of secrecy recalls the work of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which reported in the mid- 1990’s that the federal government’s secrecy system urgently needed reform, that millions of documents had been classified as “secret” and had remained “secret” long after the requirement of secrecy had expired.

To be sure, a tricky balancing act exists between adherence to the laws and customs of a civil society requiring openness and full representation for the accused and what the administration is calling the “new reality” that requires setting aside many of these important democratic conventions as a means of increasing homeland security and preventing future attacks.

American values of liberty and equality have prevailed in times of crisis when presidents attempt to seize dictatorial power that many believe betray these fundamental democratic principles. Robin Toner’s piece in The New York Times in the fall of 2001 noted that President Bush was “only the latest of many presidents to restrict civil liberties in wartime.” The story recalled that Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had placed national security above aspects of personal liberty or constitutional rights, “almost always with the support of both the public and the courts.” Occasionally, these restrictions lead to serious violations of civil liberties, such as the internment of Japanese during World War II, depriving them of their constitutional protections. Years later, in hindsight, internment became a matter of considerable national embarrassment, for which our government agreed to pay a price.

In fact, during the 20th century, the most restrictive suppression of citizens’ First Amendment rights of free speech and association came not during wartime, but after the victory celebrations ending World Wars I and II, when fear of Communism prevailed. The Palmer Raids of 1918-1921, named for President Wilson’s attorney general, Mitchell Palmer, focused on “Communists, Bolsheviks and ‘reds’ who were believed to be eating their way into the homes of the American workman.” In the McCarthy era of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy raised alarms about internal subversion and, by naming names and publicizing lists during speeches and Senate hearings, damaged the reputations of hundred of government employees, intellectuals and university professors.

Our deep-rooted values of free expression ultimately prevailed in these dark times, largely on the strength of public opinion more than on the actions of the courts. In the weeks and months immediately following September 11, the traditional checks and balances of our democratic system were quickly set aside in the interest of national unity.

The voices of dissent in Congress fell silent. The House and Senate failed in their fundamental duty to provide a forum for debate and inquiry about administration policies and actions.

The Watchdog Role of the Press

A public stunned by attacks and nervous about what future threats we might face became pliant, accepting the administration’s version of events, its secrecy impulses, and the constriction of some of our liberties. In this environment of growing uncertainty and pronounced patriotism, it is left to the press to be the vigilant watchdog of those in power, to make sure that the “right” to know does not become just the “need” to know.

In many respects, the press has performed admirably. The nation’s major newspapers have set a standard for enterprising, authoritative coverage. The journalists who parachuted into Afghanistan and moved across that forbidding terrain with the Northern Alliance, beyond the reach of the Pentagon press pools and often in peril, created a 21st century version of the courageous and independent war correspondent.

Still, there were some shameful moments for the press. When the administration advised the television networks to not broadcast interviews of Osama bin Laden that were being made available by the Arab news channel, Al Jazeera, the networks meekly complied. There were times when some in the press seemed to be intimidated by the public’s perception of the patriotic journalist as someone who wore an American flag button and didn’t press government officials with hard questions.

In such times, the most patriotic role the press can play is to fulfill its constitutionally protected duty to aggressively probe and question those who have the power to make the decisions that can affect our security and our liberty and that can put our service men and women in harm’s way. The most reassuring recent development in support of openness and transparency in our society came last month in a decision by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, which ruled that the Bush administration acted unlawfully in holding hundreds of deportation hearings in secret based only on the government’s assertion that the people involved might have links to terrorism.

The legal challenge was raised by four Michigan newspapers whose reporters had been shut out of a deportation hearing on a Muslim cleric who had overstayed his tourist visa (see story on this case on page 7). The case is important on its merits, of course, and likely will get review in the U.S. Supreme Court. More significant, however, was the language of the opinion, written by Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District.

Judge Keith crafted a ruling that spoke powerfully to the value of openness and the danger of secrecy in our democratic society. “Democracies die behind closed doors. A government operating in the shadow of secrecy stands in complete opposition to the society envisioned by the framers of our Constitution …. When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”

Judge Keith’s opinion was not only a rebuke to the Bush administration but also a clarion call to journalists to ask hard, probing questions in a time of national crisis. Murrey Marder, retired diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post, has been the guiding force and benefactor in the development of the Nieman Foundation’s Watchdog Journalism Project. Marder believes the press is by no means penetrating enough, vigorous enough, public-spirited enough, or courageous enough about reporting and analyzing the performance of those in power, whether it be elected or appointed, whether it be in corporate boards, union halls or professional offices.

Marder’s premise about the press came from his own experience during the cold war in which, he believes, the nation paid a heavy price for secrecy and deception used to justify military actions and for a pliant press willing to censor itself or lacking the will to challenge the official version of events. The tragedy of this lack of will was borne out in the sweeping revelations of the Pentagon Papers, which disclosed the flawed thinking of the U.S. government that led us into the Vietnam War.

Watchdog journalism begins with a state of mind: accepting responsibility as a surrogate for the public. It includes investigative reporting, but it is by no means limited to that. This state of mind should affect reportorial behavior in coverage of the presidency, the nation’s corporations, and the town council.

The terrorist attacks found the American press lacking adequate experience or preparation. A decade of diminishing international coverage meant that the press had not sufficiently educated itself nor informed the nation about the hostility coalescing in parts of the Arab world that would destroy our perception of homeland invincibility. In these times, our nation needs an activist, searching, challenging press that will ask hard, probing questions.

Asking Questions About the Iraq Situation

The developing story about a possible attack on Iraq provides a current example to help us understand the questions the press should be asking. What we know about this situation is, in large measure, what the Bush administration wants us to know. We have read stories telling of leaked battle scenarios. We are well informed about the coalition- building and the diplomatic efforts to win the support of allies and the U.N. Security Council. We are familiar with the failure of Congress to effectively debate our emerging Iraqi strategy and the struggle of the Democrats to challenge the President without seeming to be unpatriotic.

But what are the questions the press is not asking? Some were suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff, who wondered about the consequences of a Shiite Muslim uprising in cities beyond Baghdad and whether they would lead to battles between Shiite rebels and the Iraqi army, leading perhaps to a civil war. Questions we need to think through, Kristoff was saying, center on what will we do on the morning after Saddam Hussein is toppled. Do we send in troops to try to seize the mortars and machine guns from the warring factions? What will America do if there is a civil war? Or if the Iranians seek to capitalize on an unstable Iraq? In the north, what would America’s response be if the Kurds attempt to take advantage of the chaos to seek independence? What if the Turkish Army intervenes in Kurdistan? And, finally, how will Iraq be governed after Saddam?

There may be no answers just now to these questions. But the press must raise them and examine them and inform our citizens about America’s capacity and preparedness for responding to the range of consequences that could emerge from a military attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Asking the questions will force the administration to respond. It will inform our citizens about the risks and uncertainties of acting as the administration appears to want to act. And it will ultimately help shape the debate and the range of options the President is able to pursue.

Each of us in the news media has an important role to play in pressing for openness and access and for breaking down the barriers of secrecy that have been imposed in the name of national security. The burden of proof must always be on the government to show beyond doubt where national security interests justify any exemptions to official accountability and transparency in the use of power.

Those of you who are working with images—the maps, the photographs, the pictures from outer space—all are part of this important effort to call for more access, more openness, more accountability.

I hope you will keep this obligation in your cross hairs as you explore the many fascinating and important skills and techniques of your craft here this weekend.

The “Mapping the News” conference, held from September 27-29 at American University, provided a forum for discussion among journalists and those who work in government, industry and nongovernmental organizations about ways to deepen understanding of a place—its culture, demographics, geography and history—and how this process can make telling of news stories more vivid, engaging and understandable. Many of the conference sessions focused on ways to use tools—such as geographic information systems and satellite imagery—to assist in gathering valuable information.

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