critical eye

James Goodale: It’s a bad time for press freedoms

A Q&A with the former chief counsel to The New York Times
March 19, 2013

James Goodale has a message for journalists: Wake up. In his new book, Fighting for the Press (CUNY Journalism Press, 2013), Goodale, chief counsel to The New York Times when its editors published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, argues that President Obama is worse for press freedom than former President Richard Nixon was.

The Obama administration has prosecuted more alleged leakers of national security information under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, a course critics say is overly aggressive. Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote in a March op-ed that the administration “has a particular, chilling intolerance” for those who leak. If the Obama administration indicts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act, Goodale argues, the president will have succeeded where Nixon failed by using the act to “end-run” the First Amendment.

Goodale spoke with CJR about why he chose to write about the Pentagon Papers now and what he sees as the key threats to press freedom today. The conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Fighting for the Press comes out on April 30.

Why did you write the book now?

I was really curious as the 40th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers came about, to take a look at the claims the government made of breaches of national security in a composite form.

One, I wanted to have a look at the stuff and reach a conclusion. Two, I want to issue a clarion call to the journalistic community and others, and thirdly, I wanted to see if I could create a drama that would interest readers and so they could learn about the First Amendment. Journalists particularly.

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Let’s talk about some of the challenges to press freedom now.

The biggest challenge to the press today is the threatened prosecution of WikiLeaks, and it’s absolutely frightening.

Investigative reporting, particularly on national security matters, cannot be effective unless the reporter’s able to ask the source and talk the source into giving out the information. Journalism is hard. They’re not just going to tell you everything. They’ll tell you whether the sun is shining, but when there’s something that involves malfeasance, they’re going to play you for a sucker for 100 days before they give it out.

And therefore, you have to wheedle that information out of the source. Now if Assange is convicted, it might be a conviction for wheedling — for gathering the news, for asking questions, for getting stories. So he’ll go to jail for doing what every journalist does.

The other thing that is bad on the press scene is reporter’s privilege and the ability to force reporters to divulge their sources. It has not gone away. There haven’t been any big stories of journalists going to jail recently, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

The one case that is troublesome and is still out there as we speak is the case of James Risen, who was a journalist who was leaked national security information in respect to the warrantless wiretapping program, which was disclosed by The New York Times.

He’s won his case, but most people are going to be surprised if he can win it on appeal. It’s been sitting on appeal for a year. Now what’s going to happen — if the shoe drops and we’re back to Judy Miller, it means Risen goes to jail. And if in fact it doesn’t turn out that way and it turns out well, we’ll have the question of whether the government will go to the Supreme Court and we will always have the question whether it will turn out well for the next Risen. And who’s behind this one? Obama.

Could you talk a bit about President Obama’s approach to classified information and press freedom?

Antediluvian, conservative, backwards. Worse than Nixon. He thinks that anyone who leaks is a spy! I mean, it’s cuckoo.

Could you compare what we see in the Pentagon Papers and what we see in WikiLeaks?

Well, I think it’s very much the same thing. We have a leak of classified information. And by the way — you’ve got to remember [Bradley] Manning’s the leaker. Everyone says Assange is a leaker. He’s not a leaker. He’s the person who gets the information.

So why we’re so concerned about the prosecution of Assange is what he did is the same as what the Times did in the Pentagon Papers, and indeed what they did with WikiLeaks. The Times published on its website the very same material WikiLeaks published on its website. So if you go after the WikiLeaks criminally, you go after the Times. That’s the criminalization of the whole process.

Why aren’t more people angry about what they see as Obama’s aversion to press freedom?

They don’t believe it. I actually have talked to two investigative reporters who are household names, and I said, “Do you realize what’s happening to you if this goes forward?” And I talk, I get no response, and the subject shifts to other parts of the book. No one seems to care.

So you think that if John McCain or Mitt Romney were the president and doing this, there would be a different response?

We’d be screaming and yelling and the journalists would be going crazy. And that doesn’t speak well of journalists.

The FBI destroyed its file on Punch Sulzberger, the former publisher of the Times. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s absolutely outrageous that there was a file on the publisher of The New York Times, most probably for publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers did nothing to damage national security. The claims that they did damage national security have turned out, in retrospect, to be so much hot air.

Is there anything I’ve missed that you’d like to talk about?

My conclusion is that not one claim has — after 40-plus years — ever been proved to damage national security, and one of the most ridiculous claims was that the Papers broke the [communications intelligence] codes, even though the government knew very well that it had not.

When you pull it apart, it’s baloney. And the president of the United States held the country in the palm of his hand saying the world’s coming to an end, and it was all baloney.

Susan Armitage is a freelance reporter in New York City working on a master’s degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism