Reporters Battle for Information in War on Terrorism

By Meyer, Josh | News Media and the Law, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Reporters Battle for Information in War on Terrorism


Meyer, Josh, News Media and the Law


COVER STORY

GUEST COLUMN

"We are at war, facing a terrorist threat from unidentified foes who operate in covert ways and unknown places. This makes it essential that the United States take every legal step possible to protect the American people from acts of terrorism. As we explained to the Court today, opening sensitive immigration hearings could compromise the security of our nation and our ongoing investigations, by revealing valuable information to terrorist organizations seeking to harm America."

That was a statement by Barbara Comstock, director of public affairs for the Justice Department, in September. It was issued in reference to the government's arguments that day in a federal appeals court in New Jersey as to why it shouldn't have to disclose virtually anything about who it has detained in the year-long investigation into the September 11 attacks, and why.

As usual, there was little else coming out of the Justice Department that day, either officially or unofficially, to help reporters stay up to speed on that case.

It is but one of many skirmishes - legal and otherwise - between lawyers and journalists and the Justice Department in response to its near-complete blackout on any information regarding the detainees.

The government so far has "won" the New Jersey case, since the appellate panel ruled the government can, indeed, keep the hearings secret. It has lost a similar case in Detroit's federal court system, but has asked the full appellate court to reconsider the decision.

And in Washington, D.C., a federal judge ruled in August that the Bush administration must reveal the names of roughly 1,200 people detained in the investigation into the September 11 attacks even though all but a few dozen have been released from custody and most have been deported.

The judge, Gladys Kessler, said she didn't buy the Justice Department's argument that revealing the names of those detained would help Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network elude capture and launch more strikes, as the Justice Department contends.

Kessler emphasized that she appreciated that "difficult times such as these have always tested our fidelity to the core democratic values of openness, government accountability and the rule of law." But, she said, an open government is what distinguishes "a democracy from a dictatorship."

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) took another step toward openness when it said that the immigration hearing for Rabih Haddad must be open.

"Democracies die behind closed doors," said Judge Damon J. Keith.

The Justice Department has indicated that it will fight such adverse rulings all the way to the Supreme Court. It has appealed Kessler's ruling and has not released the names of any detainees, although some recent court proceedings have been opened to the public. And newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times and its parent Tribune Company) continue to pursue legal efforts to force the Bush administration to be more forthcoming with information.

In the meantime, for the reporters on the ground covering the War on Terrorism, the legal battles are almost academic.

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