A Jackboot for Journalists and America’s New Political Landscape
The Missoula Independent has a feature piece this week—To Serve and Deflect—that highlights what happens when investigative journalism focuses the lens on systemic corruption of the public trust. Matthew Frank and the Indy should be commended for taking on the pervasive corruption of the Lake County Sheriff’s department. It’s been a three year ordeal that, according to Indy president, Matt Gibson, is not yet over:
The Missoula Independent’s investigation into allegedly widespread corruption among law enforcement officers in Lake County started in 2011, when an anonymous source unexpectedly delivered a stack of documents to our office. For pursuing the pervasive wrongdoing, sheriff’s deputy Terry Leonard lost his job, as did POST Director Wayne Ternes and FWP Game Warden Frank Bowen. Bringing this story to light hasn’t been altogether easy for us, either. POST and then-state Attorney General Steve Bullock named us as defendants in a lawsuit they filed to keep POST’s investigation a secret.
It’s become a common tactic of government agencies in Montana. Faced with requests for constitutionally guaranteed public information, officials increasingly head straight to Montana District Court, where they file for declaratory judgment seeking guidance from the bench about their legal obligations. Predictably, the court cases drag out for months, and you know what they say about justice delayed. Just as significantly, the pre-emptive lawsuits preserve the government’s ability to stick interlocutors with a big legal bill.
In this case, POST argued that the accused officers’ rights of privacy outweighed the public’s right to know. We argued that whatever individual privacy rights the officers might have, they don’t apply when an individual breaches the public trust. And we complained that POST had abrogated its legal duty to make its own determination about the officers’ rights and turn over its files before bringing a lawsuit blocking our records request.
In the end, the officers either explicitly waived their privacy rights or the court sided with us. POST’s suit against the Indy took a year to get to this point, and it’s not done yet.
Now we get to argue about the attorney’s fees.
Montana law clearly gives plaintiffs in public records cases an opportunity to recover attorney’s fees from the government, if the plaintiffs prevail. But when the government’s the aggressor and sues first, as in this case, it’s not so obvious how the judge might rule, even if the government loses. That’s a significant stumbling block even for robust businesses like the Indy. Imagine the chilling effect on the small community papers in rural counties, or on ordinary citizens, who naturally share all the same rights to public information as professional news reporters.
Thanks to the zeal of crusaders like Leonard and the dedicated professionalism of Bowen, four of the alleged malefactors in Lake County have received disciplinary penalties. It remains to be seen how citizens will deal with the remaining loose ends, like the uncredentialed officer on the job in Ronan and the elected officials in Lake County who tolerated the lawless culture there and thwarted efforts to change it. But one thing’s obvious: For many, many years now, key officials at virtually every level of government have gone out of their way to prevent citizens from discovering what Lake County’s lawmen have been doing wrong.
I’m sure the delaying tactics had nothing to do with the 2012 election season and Montana’s AG, Steve Bullock, running for Governor.
If you read that first sentence from Matt Gibson, this whole investigation began with an anonymous source dropping off documentation. That sounds like the act of a whistleblower.
When Bradley Manning engaged in similar actions to expose the criminal acts of the US military, he didn’t just lose his job, he lost his freedom. Manning was also tortured with solitary confinement for months in an attempt to coerce him into implicating Assange.
I guess that’s why Eric Holder felt the need to explicitly tell Russian officials that, don’t worry, America won’t execute or torture Edward Snowden.
WASHINGTON — In an effort to break the international standoff over fugitive Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has assured Russian authorities that the American on the lam after revealing top-secret U.S. intelligence operations won’t face the death penalty or torture if he returns to the United States.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote to his Russian counterpart to say that Snowden’s claim to need political asylum in Russia for fear of abuse or execution if returned to the United States was “entirely without merit,” the Justice Department disclosed Friday.
Some people should lose their jobs. Eric Holder is a glaring example. He has zero credibility presiding over the US (in)justice department.
If Matt Gibson is concerned about how Montana agencies are reflexively using the courts to burden investigations with court costs, then he must really be concerned about how the Obama administration is aggressively going after whistleblowers, without precedent.
The most recent news from the kangaroo court presiding over Manning’s case is the judge’s refusal to dismiss the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge. This is very bad news for investigative journalism:
The decision this past week by the presiding military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, to refuse to dismiss charges of “aiding the enemy,” which carry a potential death sentence (though prosecutors have said they will not pursue it), is particularly important. Colonel Lind said Private Manning’s military training would have given him knowledge that the information he divulged could be seen by America’s foes.
“He was knowingly providing intelligence to the enemy,” she said, according to Reuters.
But that standard is an almost impossible one in the Internet era, when anything published is instantly available worldwide, Manning’s supporters say. The result is that anyone who wants to inform fellow Americans about secret government actions – as Manning’s defense lawyers claim he was trying to do – is in danger of life in prison, or perhaps even death.
“The idea that you can execute someone for an offense that had no element of intent or even specified effect, or that you can face life in prison or death simply from informing an enemy or potential enemy in the process of informing fellow citizens for their benefit is potentially a lethal blow to the First Amendment or freedom of speech and the press,” says Daniel Ellsberg, the former intelligence specialist who released the Pentagon papers – a classified history of the US policies in the Vietnam War – some 40 years ago.
That precedent could be damaging “specifically to investigative reporting on matters alleged to be security issues,” adds Mr. Ellsberg, who has been a staunch defender of Manning’s actions. “You can’t inform the public of wrongdoing by your government without informing the world.”
I wish the big news of this past week was the House vote on the Amash/Conyers amendment. Even the little post I wrote about it got less views than anything I’ve written in the last few months.
The fascist wing of the Democratic Party aligning with the clinging remnants of the Neocon faction exposes, IMHO, political possibilities on both sides of the isle.
The most interesting possibility for me continues to be how both parties are trying to respond to the Libertarian wild card. Montana Democrats, for example, were willing to halt state government with their “call of the senate“, potentially squandering whatever slim chance Medicaid expansion had, to (in-part) kill the two top-tier primary bill.
The political landscape is wide-open. Stay tuned…