Plug That Leak

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Plug That Leak

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

It's very rare these days to hear a government official say something positive about reporters, but it just happened. In an age when the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to bypass the media and hide the way it conducts business, the sudden magnanimity of the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission was a welcome development. The chairman, Chris Cox, told Jonathan Lansner of the Orange County Register yesterday that he's determined to keep his agency out of the way of financial reporters.

The SEC, Cox said, "relies on aggressive investigative journalism to uncover wrongdoing in companies."

Cox's comments came after news stories revealed that, without his knowledge, SEC investigators tried to force some reporters to turn over their notes about a dispute between the online retail company and some of its investors.

"It's refreshing to see a government official stand up so boldly for investigative journalism," Lansner wrote in his column today. He went on, "It's always scary, in a society that cherishes an independent press, when regulators or other law-enforcement officials pursue reporters and their work as part of a government probe."

But it's happening more and more. In Sunday's Washington Post, Dan Eggen wrote that the Bush Administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, is targeting journalists and their government sources.

The crackdown includes several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.

In recent weeks, Eggen wrote, dozens of employees at the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies have been interviewed by FBI agents who are investigating leaks about secret CIA prisons and the National Security Agency's domestic spying program.

In a little-noticed case in California, Eggen said, FBI agents from Los Angeles contacted reporters at the Sacramento Bee about stories based on sealed court documents about a terrorism case in Lodi.

"Some media watchers, lawyers and editors say that, taken together, the incidents represent perhaps the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation, and that they have worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House." New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, responding to questions from The Post, said, "There's a tone of gleeful relish in the way (government officials) talk about dragging reporters before grand juries, their appetite for withholding information, and the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors."

"Some days," Keller said, "it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values it professes to be promoting abroad."

The obsession for secrecy pervades nearly every everything the administration touches. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government reported yesterday that, after four years of secrecy, the Pentagon was forced by a court order to release the names of many of the 469 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The Bush Administration had hidden the men's identities, saying its release would violate their privacy and could endanger them and their families.

Most of these guys are being held without charges. Suddenly the administration cares about their families?

Secrecy, of course, is a close cousin to lying.

James Carroll wrote in yesterday's Boston Globe about the video of President Bush being warned, explicitly, just hours before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, that the levees were vulnerable.

"Everyone knows that after the levees broke, he denied having been warned that such a thing was possible," Carroll wrote. "The broadcast of the film amounted to a terrible epiphany: The president seemed caught in a lie. Grave questions had already been raised about his administration's manipulations of the truth, especially in relation to the war in Iraq. Does the truth matter in America any more?"

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan