by Guy Walker
After half an hour of comic relapses and festal banter at last week’s Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama broke into a ten minute eulogy about the importance of a free press. It was serious, heartfelt, earning applause and an agreeable rhythm of nodding heads, everyone concluding that indeed they and Obama are essentially a single effulgent team of transparency and courage. Obama reassured the audience (which consisted of reporters, actors, and Kendall Jenner), “Our free press is why we once again recognize the real journalists who uncover the horrifying scandal and brought some measure of justice to thousands of victims throughout the world.” Maybe they’re a little tough on Obama sometimes, he later referred to, but this is testament to a healthy potent democracy. He can jab at them, they can jab at him, and consequently, they are the freest most sterling State in the world.
But there’s a problem. During Obama’s presidency, more whistleblowers and official leakers have been prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act than during all previous presidents combined. The Espionage Act was of course proposed by then President Woodrow Wilson, shortly after the US entry into World War I, in order to wage a war on spies. But under Obama’s watch, they were whistleblowers, not spies. There was Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, who shared classified information with the press regarding the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Stephen Jin-Woo Kim was a nuclear proliferation specialist working for the State Department, and handed intelligence about North Korea over to Fox News. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, gave journalists the names of two colleagues who used waterboarding to interrogate detainees. Shami Leibowitz, a former FBI Hebrew translator, leaked FBI wiretaps of the Israeli embassy to a blogger. Chelsea Manning leaked 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks, the most notable of which was a video of American Apache helicopters killing a dozen innocents, including two Reuters reporters and then the first responders. Jeffrey Sterling, also a former CIA officer, leaked classified information to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Edward Snowden, of course, handed a mass of data on the NSA surveillance program over to Glenn Greenwald. Again, the 1917 Espionage Act was designed to prosecute spies—those, as Woodrow Wilson stated, who were “born under other flags”—not those who handed information over to journalists about the scandalous and sometimes nefarious work of their own government.
But President Obama continued, personally commending Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, who was jailed for nearly two years on accusations of espionage: “Last time this year we spoke of Jason’s courage as he endured the isolation of an Iranian prison. This year we see that courage in the flesh, and it’s living testament to the very idea of a free press, and a reminder of the rising level of danger and political intimidation and physical threats faced by reporters overseas. And I can make this commitment that as long as I hold this office, my administration will continue to fight for the release of American journalists held against their will, and we will not stop until they see the same freedom as Jason had.”
Supporting Rezaian’s release from an Iranian jail is obvious and banal. It’s political-speak, an easy reference that’s confident for a round of applause. What about other journalists? What about the case of Yemeni investigative journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye?
Shaye discovered that a remote village in Yemen was bombed by US-made Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs (neither of which were a part of the Yemeni military’s arsenal), killing fourteen women and twenty-one children, and quite possibly not a single AQAP (Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula) operative. And yet Shaye was consequently imprisoned under suspicious circumstances. After a sham trial, Shaye’s supporters pressured the Yemeni government to release him, and he was set to be pardoned; but on February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and “expressed concern” over his release, resulting in the continued imprisonment of the journalist for exposing the US involvement in the bombing of a Yemeni village.
To Obama’s credit, he did specify that he would continue to fight for American journalists, not Yemeni. But this is clearly not a matter of a truly free press, but rather that of political clout. The rule is: if you matter enough, we won’t prosecute you. David Patraeus, for example, gave his biographer and lover Paula Broadwell notebooks full of classified information, but was merely charged with a misdemeanor. Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta allowed Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers access to the savory details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. It’s the same reason President Obama never even sought prosecution of the major bankers responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, why former Attorney General Eric Holder admitted “some of these institutions [become] so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them,” only to return to the corporate law firm Covington & Burling immediately following his tenure with the Obama administration. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, an insignificant family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown, jammed between two noodle shops, was the only bank indicted. It’s the same reason four Blackwater mercenaries were finally sentenced last year for the Nisour Square massacre, but the founder of the company, Erik Prince, will likely never be held accountable. Or why the guards at Abu Ghraib were sentenced for their torture methods but Donald Rumsfeld was not. There is priority and privilege at work. To be a significant enough of a player is to work with almost complete impunity.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. And the problem surely doesn’t entirely fall onto Obama’s shoulders. It was here all along.
In a lecture Noam Chomsky gave on March 15, 1989, entitled “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” he spoke of two very different, yet strikingly similar cases of freedom of the press. The first being the famous case of Salman Rushdie and his novel Satanic Verses. At the time, then Supreme Leader of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers for printing such beastly words. A couple days before Chomsky’s lecture, the Prime Minister of Iran proposed that a compromise could be made, and if all of the copies of the heinous book were to be burned then the fatwa would presumably be revoked.
The second case Chomsky referred to was one that he was personally involved in. A book he co-authored in 1974 with Edward Herman (who also co-authored the book Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky) about American foreign policy and mass media, was published by a subsidiary of Warner Communications Incorporated. When an executive at Warner saw he book, he disliked it so much he responded by pulping not just all 20,000 copies that were published, but all books published by that subsidiary, ending the company entirely. Chomsky grimly jokes that the only difference between the Rushdie case and his own is that Warner actually carried it out.
A free press is always in jeopardy by its own limitations, by the actors of secrets, power, and worship. This is larger than President Obama. Hegel’s dialectical “power of negation” is clearly at work—that is, opposites do not cancel or neutralize each other, but rather develop into one another until they are both monstrous bodies of unrecognizable flesh. The more whistleblowers there are exposing its governments’ various libidinal affairs with autocracy, the more the government will crack down on whistleblowers, and the more whistleblowers will counter and expose. And on and on, until there is nothing left but beige flattened forms of scandal, and the rest of us just a herd of troglodytic squatters on American soil. It’s the free press that lets us live, the free press that lets us breed and spread across the universe. Kendall Jenner and Will Smith applauding that liberty is still with us. It takes us back to the old question: why are pigeons everywhere if they’re so stupid? Because they love trash.