You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Chris Hedges: Monitoring of AP Phones a “Terrifying” Step in State Assault on Press Freedom

Media Options

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges joins us to discuss what could mark the most significant government intrusion on freedom of the press in decades. The Justice Department has acknowledged seizing the work, home and cellphone records used by almost 100 reporters and editors at the Associated Press. The phones targeted included the general AP office numbers in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Connecticut, and the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. The action likely came as part of a probe into the leaks behind an AP story on the U.S. intelligence operation that stopped a Yemen-based al-Qaeda bombing plot on a U.S.-bound airplane. Hedges, a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and former New York Times reporter, calls the monitoring “one more assault in a long series of assault against freedom of information and freedom of the press.” Highlighting the Obama administration’s targeting of government whistleblowers, Hedges adds: “Talk to any investigative journalist who must investigate the government, and they will tell you that there is a deep freeze. People are terrified of speaking, because they’re terrified of going to jail.”

Related Story

StoryMay 18, 2011Inside Obama’s “Orwellian World” Where Whistleblowing Has Become Espionage: The Case of Thomas Drake
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is heading to Capitol Hill today, where he’s expected to be grilled over the Justice Department’s decision to secretly seize the work, home and cellphone records used by almost a hundred reporters and editors at the Associated Press. On Tuesday, Holder defended the move as a necessary step in a criminal probe of leaks of classified information.

The phones targeted by the subpoena included the general AP office numbers in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Hartford, Connecticut; and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. The records were from April and May of 2012. Among those whose records were obtained were Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, three other reporters and an editor, all of whom worked on a story about an operation conducted by the CIA and allied intelligence agencies that stopped a Yemen-based al-Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane headed for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The Associated Press had delayed publication of the story 'til May 7, 2012, at the government's request. One day before the AP story was finally published, a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Fahd al-Quso, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Attorney General Holder, who says he recused himself from the leak probe, defended his department’s actions.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This was a very serious—a very serious leak, and a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976, and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking Tuesday. In a letter to Holder, AP’s CEO Greg Pruitt protested the government’s seizing of journalists’ phone records. He wrote, quote: “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

AMY GOODMAN: In an editorial today, The New York Times strongly criticized the Justice Department’s move. The editors wrote, quote: “These tactics will not scare us off, or The A.P., but they could reveal sources on other stories and frighten confidential contacts vital to coverage of government.”

Well, we’re joined right now by a former Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist from The New York Times. He’s now a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and author, along with Joe Sacco, of the book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. We’re joined by Chris Hedges.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chris.

CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this revelation about the—about what happened with AP and the U.S. government?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, it’s part of a pattern. That’s what’s so frightening. And it’s a pattern that we’ve seen, with the use of the Espionage Act, to essentially silence whistleblowers within the government—Kiriakou, Drake and others, although Kiriakou went to jail on—pled out on another charge—the FISA Amendment Act, which allows for warrantless wiretapping, the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the stripping of American citizens of due process and indefinite detention. And it is one more assault in a long series of assault against freedom of information and freedom of the press. And I would also, of course, throw in the persecution of Julian Assange at WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning as part of that process.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Chris Hedges, you wrote in the recent article that was published, your article “Death of Truth” in Truthdig and Nation magazine—you also write about the significance of the Espionage Act and how often it’s been invoked, and you say that it eviscerates the possibility of an independent press. So could you talk about the Espionage Act and how it also is somehow related to this AP story?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, it’s been used six times by the Obama administration. It was written in 1917 and was—is our Foreign Secrets Act. It is never meant—it was not designed to shut down whistleblowers, first used against Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers. So, three times from 1917 until Obama takes office in 2009, six times. And if you talk to investigative journalists in this country, who must investigate the inner workings of government, no one will talk, even on background. People are terrified. And this is, of course—the seizure of two months of records, of AP records, is not really about going after AP; it’s about going after that person or those people who leaked this story and shutting them down. And this canard that it endangered American life is—you know, there’s no evidence for this. He’s not—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the news conferences that Eric Holder and the White House held yesterday were interesting. This is White House spokesperson Jay Carney questioned Tuesday about the AP spying scandal and the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers.

REPORTER: This administration in the last four years has prosecuted twice as many leakers as every previous administration combined. How does that reflect balance?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I would say that the president is committed to the press’s ability to pursue information, to defending the First Amendment. He is also, as a citizen and as commander-in-chief, committed to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information to be—that can do harm to our national security interests or to endanger individuals to be—to be leaked. And that is a balance that has to be struck.

REPORTER: But the record of the last four years does not suggest balance.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: That’s your opinion, Ari. But I—

REPORTER: No, it’s twice as many prosecutions as all previous administrations combined. That’s not even close.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Well, I—I understand that there—you know, that there are ongoing investigations that preceded this administration, but I—again, I’m not going to—I can tell you what the president’s views are. And the president’s views include his defense of the First Amendment, his belief that journalists ought to be able to pursue information in an unfettered way, and that is backed up by his support for a media shield law, both as senator and as president. And it is also true that he believes a balance needs to be struck between those goals and the need to protect classified information.

AMY GOODMAN: And the questions of Jay Carney about the spying scandal on AP just continued.

REPORTER: As a principle, does the president approve of the idea of prosecutors going through the personal phone records and work phone records of journalists and their editors?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I—I appreciate the effort to generalize the question, but, obviously, that goes right to the heart of some of the reporting on this specific case. I can tell you that the president believes that the press, as a rule, needs to be—to have an unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism and—

REPORTER: How can it be unfettered if you’re worried about having your phone records—

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Well, again, I can’t—I can’t respond to this in the specific. And, you know, I—I am very understanding of the questions on this issue and—and appreciate the—the nature of the questions. And I think they—they go to important issues, and they go to the fundamental issue of finding the balance between—when it comes to leaks of classified information of—of our nation’s secrets, if you will, between the need to protect those—that information, because of the national security implications of not protecting them, on the one hand, and the need to allow for an unfettered press and its—in its pursuit of investigative journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Jay Carney, the White House press spokesperson, who used to be the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine. Your response, Chris Hedges?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I find, you know, all of these measures to essentially shut down the freedom of information, including the persecution of Assange and Manning, as symptomatic of a reconfiguration of our society into a totalitarian security and surveillance state, one where anyone who challenges the official narrative, who digs out cases of torture, war crimes—which is, of course, what Manning and Assange presented to the American public—is going to be ruthlessly silenced. And I find the passivity on the part of the mainstream press, publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, El País, Der Spiegel, all of which, of course, used this information, and turning their backs on Manning and Assange, to be very shortsighted for precisely this reason. If they think it’s just about Manning and Assange, then they have no conception of what it is that’s happening. And, you know, everyone knows, within the administration, within the National Security Council, the effects of climate change, the instability that that will cause, the economic deterioration, which is irreversible, and they want the mechanisms by which they can criminalize any form of dissent. And that’s finally what this is about.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you think allowed this to happen, Chris Hedges? You think it’s related to, you’ve suggested in your piece, the war on terror, that it gave kind of sanction, in a way, to this kind of crackdown on journalists?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, you know, it becomes the same paradigm in the war against communism. It’s an excuse to ferret out and destroy legitimate movements that challenge centers of power. And that’s, of course, how the war on terror has worked in exactly the same way. But we are seeing environmental activists, Occupy activists, people who function, like Manning, as a whistleblower being caught up in this war on terror and silenced through these rules.

So what they do is they pass, you know, for instance, Section 1021 of the NDAA. They pass it in the name of the war on terror, but then they can use it. Anybody can become a terrorist. I mean, in the trial in federal court, which we brought against—in the Southern District, we used, in the Stratfor-leaked emails that were put out by WikiLeaks, where they were trying to link a group that was close to Occupy, US Day of Rage, and al-Qaeda. That’s precisely what happened. So when we allow this kind of thing to go forward, we essentially shut down any ability not only to ferret out what’s happening internally within the mechanisms of power, but to protest or carry out dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to another clip of the news conference of Attorney General Eric Holder being questioned on Tuesday.

REPORTER: The real question here, the underlying question, is the policy of the administration when it comes to the ability of the media to cover the news. And I think the question for you is, given the fact that this news organization was not given an opportunity to try to quash this in court, as has been precedent, it leaves us in the position of wondering whether the administration has somehow decided policy-wise that it’s kind of going to go after us.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Well, that is certainly not—I mean, I can talk about policy. That is certainly not the policy of this administration. If you will remember, in 2009, when I was going through my confirmation hearings, I testified in favor of a reporter shield law. We actually, as an administration, took a position in favor of such a law, didn’t get the necessary support up on the Hill. It is something this administration still thinks would be—would be appropriate. We’ve investigated cases on the basis of the facts, not as a result of a policy to get the press or to do anything of that nature. The facts and the law have dictated our actions.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Chris Hedges, I wanted you to respond to him and then talk about your recent trip. Well, you just came back from London, where you met with Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy, and then you came here and went to Pennsylvania and met with Mumia Abu-Jamal.

CHRIS HEDGES: It was a good week. Yes. I mean, I find what’s happening terrifying, truly frightening. And when you look closely at all of the documents that were purportedly given to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning and published through Assange, none of them were top-secret. I mean, as a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, it was my job to go and find out often top-secret information. And that’s why I can’t understand the inability of the traditional press to grasp that we are now in the last moments of an effort to, in essence, effectively extinguish press freedom. And if you—I mean, AP is an—like The New York Times, an amazingly cautious organization, but read the comments. I mean, they get it, internally. But, unfortunately, you know, they have divided us against ourselves, and—and this is—you know, what we’ve undergone, as John Ralston says and as I’ve said many times, a kind of corporate coup d’état.

What we are seeing is a system put into place where it’s all propaganda. And anybody who challenges—I mean, look, this constant reference to a shield law is absurd, because they just violated the shield law by not going to court and informing AP of a subpoena but doing it secretly. So, I mean, you’ve got to hand it to the Obama administration. They’re far more clever than their predecessors in the Bush administration, but they’re carrying out exactly the same policy of snuffing out our most basic civil liberties and our most important press freedoms. And that’s because they know what’s coming, and they are going to legally put in a place by which any challenge to the centers of corporate power become ineffectual or impossible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But how do you think this is already impacting the work of journalists?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, talk to any investigative journalist who must investigate the government, and they will tell you that there is a deep freeze. People are terrified of speaking, because they’re terrified of going to jail. And Kiriakou is now sitting for 30 months in a prison in Pennsylvania. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And Kiriakou is?

CHRIS HEDGES: That’s the former CIA official who purportedly gave information to The New York Times. And, you know, they’ve subpoenaed Risen’s records, both for his book and—

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen of The New York Times.

CHRIS HEDGES: Right, of the Times. I mean, so, it is—

AMY GOODMAN: For reporting on warrantless wiretapping.

CHRIS HEDGES: Exactly. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Which they held onto, a story they held onto for more than a year and that took the—

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, that gets into the cowardice of The New York Times, but that’s another show. Yeah, it was about to come out in the book, and then the _Times_’ Bill Keller ran it, because—but they had held it. And so, yeah, I think we’re in a very, very frightening moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that these—the phones were—the logs were taken of these different phones that more than a hundred AP reporters used, reporters and editors, shows who is calling them and who they’re calling.

CHRIS HEDGES: Right, that’s what they want.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of that.

CHRIS HEDGES: Right. Well, what they’re clearly—

AMY GOODMAN: These aren’t tape-recorded conversations.

CHRIS HEDGES: Right. And, I mean, having done that kind of work, I’m almost certain that whoever gave the AP this information didn’t give it to them over the phone. But what they’re doing is finding out—matching all of the phone records to find out who had contact with someone in an AP bureau, whether that was in New York or Hartford or Washington or wherever else, and then they will probably use the Espionage Act to go after them, as well. That would—that’s certainly what the Obama administration has done since its inception.

AMY GOODMAN: Very briefly, can you talk about your visit with Julian Assange and then your visit with journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I mean, I have tremendous respect for Julian Assange and what he’s done. Again, even within the liberal intelligentsia, who should know better, they’ve turned their back on him. You know, whatever the sexual misconduct charges in Sweden were, it certainly wasn’t rape, but there was something. But that has been used—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, they aren’t charges, but he’s wanted for questioning.

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, he’s actually not been charged at all, so that’s right, in a legal sense. But, you know, that kind of character assassination has left him very much alone. And I think the courage of a Manning, the courage of an Assange, the courage of a Mumia—I mean, how that man remains unbroken. I was there with Cornel West and the theologian James Cone. I mean, it was a privilege for me. I mean, three of the probably greatest African-American intellectuals in the country, and certainly radicals. It’s—you know, those people who hold fast to the—a kind of moral imperative, or hold fast to the capacity for dissent, whether that’s Manning, who exhibited—I was in the courtroom when he read his statement—tremendous courage, poise, whether that’s Assange, whether that’s Mumia, let’s look at where all those three people are, because for all of us who speak out, that’s where they want us to be, as well. And that gets back to this AP story, because that is exactly the process that we are undergoing and where—if they win, where we’re headed.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at The Nation Institute; foreign correspondent for The New York Times for 15 years, part of a team of reporters that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism; among his books, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt . And we’ll link to his piece on Julian Assange called “The Death of Truth,” which appears in The Nation magazine and at Truthdig, as well.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the genocide verdict against the former dictator, the former U.S.-backed dictator of Guatemala. We’ll be speaking with the Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Stay with us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Hails Genocide Conviction of Ex-Guatemalan Dictator Ríos Montt

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation