In May 2006, freelance journalist Sarah Olson interviewed Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada for Truthout.org and National Radio Project’s “Making Contact.” Watada is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq (he considers the war to be illegal), and as a result became the first military officer charged with public dissent since 1965. Lt. Watada faces four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. The Army has subpoenaed Olson to testify in Watada’s court martial, which is slated for the first week of February, in order to verify the statements Watada made to her, which are already a part of the public record.
Paul McLeary: How did you find out about the case initially?
Sarah Olson: I cover the antiwar movement, and I had been doing stories about conscientious objectors or war resisters, among other things. So, it’s a story I’ve been following, and I’ve been telling people that if they know someone who wants to talk, to let me know, so it was a logical thing.
PM: You interviewed him in May and he held a press conference and went fully public in June.
SO: Yeah. I published the truthout story the morning he went public at his press conference [on June7].
PM: How long was it after your story came out that the Army first contacted you about the case?
SO: I heard from them in July. Ehren was formally charged on fifth of July with two counts of contemptuous speech and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. In August they added another conduct charge, and then when they convened the court martial in November, they dropped the contemptuous speech charges, so right now he’s facing four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, each of them based on statements he made to the public or to the press about his opposition to the war. One of those is based on the selected statements from the truthout interview I did with him.
PM: Obviously the interview is out there in the public domain, so what would the Army hope to gain by subpoenaing you and having you come in and reaffirm that you did the interview and that he said what he is already on the record as saying?
SO: Everything that appears in print is considered hearsay until someone agrees to confirm it. The more complicated thing about this is that because it is also available on radio, it is actually something that they can listen to, and hear his voice, so my argument is going to be that you don’t need journalists [to testify] in this case, because you can download a couple different pieces that I did with him, listen to his voice and verify his words yourself.
PM: As far as the ethical issues involved, do you feel that if you testify — and if you don’t you’re potentially looking at jail time — your standing among potential sources in the future might be put at risk?
SO: Absolutely. That is one of several arguments I’m making. I believe that when you are seen — rightly or wrongly — as collaborating with the government in a prosecution, it sends a message to anybody who is considering talking to me that “Talk to me and you’ll go to jail.”
It’s important to acknowledge that many journalists don’t have an issue with going to court to verify their reporting. That’s all the Army says it wants from me. Obviously once I get up on stand they can ask whatever they want, there’s no limitations on that, so that sets up this slippery slope. But more to my concern … once speech itself becomes a crime it doesn’t matter if it is public material or confidential, and it sends a horrible message that you’re willing to take sides in a way that journalists should never do.