Steve Kroft’s stunning omission

Anwar al-Awlaki

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tough questioning last night when I sat down to watch President Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes.” The idea was to revel in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Steve Kroft’s questions — all of which were a variation on “Mr. President, why are you so wonderful?” — were no surprise.

Even so, I was startled when, toward the end of the interview, Kroft asked Obama, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” The president blandly answered that every time he orders a military action, he does so with the understand that someone will be killed.

But what was missing from Kroft’s question and Obama’s answer was the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American whom the president ordered killed last year. Al-Awlaki survived a U.S. drone attack on his headquarters in Yemen on Saturday, after the “60 Minutes” interview was recorded. But the targeting of al-Awlaki was hardly a secret — it was even the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by his father. If Kroft didn’t know that, then he had no business sitting down with the president. If he did, well, why didn’t he say something?

The targeting of al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Islamist, was an extraordinary measure. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, which helped with the lawsuit, has observed:

[T]he United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we’ll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow.

Should the United States be trying to kill al-Awlaki? According to this extensively footnoted Wikipedia article, al-Awlaki’s fiery rhetoric was the inspiration for a number of terrorist attacks. In addition, some say he has been involved in planning acts of terrorism and had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He may, in fact, be a legitimate target.

What troubles me is that it is not widely known that our government has targeted an American-born citizen for death. It’s something that ought to be debated openly, not relegated to an occasional mention in the media. So it’s an opportunity lost when a journalist like Kroft asks a question that is either ignorant or disingenuous, and then allows the president to dissemble without so much as a follow-up.

Did Kroft genuinely not know better, or had he and the folks at CBS News already decided not to press Obama? Either way, it was shocking omission. We could have learned something if only Kroft had bothered to do his job.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A South African scholar is un-Muzzled

Adam Habib

In October 2006, a South African scholar named Adam Habib, a frequent visitor to the United States, was detained at JFK Airport, questioned about his political beliefs and hustled out of the country.

Habib later learned that the Bush administration had decided, on the basis of no apparent evidence, that he had ties to terrorism. More likely his exclusion was based on his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

Habib’s ordeal led me to bestow a 2008 Phoenix Muzzle Award upon then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and then-secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff for exploiting the vast, vague powers they had been granted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to silence a prominent critic. Among other things, their actions forced Habib — who received his Ph.D. from City University of New York — to cancel an appearance at an academic conference in Boston on Aug. 1 of that year.

Now Habib is once again free to travel to the United States. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an order clearing Habib, a sociology professor at the University of Johannesburg, and Tariq Ramadan, a professor of St. Antony’s College, part of Oxford University, in response to a legal action brought by the ACLU and several other organizations.

Habib is currently on a 19-day tour of the U.S. that will bring him to Harvard Law School this Wednesday, an appearance being co-sponsored by the ACLU of Massachusetts. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Habib praises Clinton’s decision, but urges the Obama administration to end his predecessor’s policy of “ideological exclusion.” Chronicle reporter Peter Schmidt writes:

“It is absolutely incumbent on the Obama administration to follow through on these tentative steps” and “withdraw all of the practices of ideological exclusion that emerged during this period,” Mr. Habib said. Noting how President Obama was himself shaped by living abroad as a child, Mr. Habib said, “It would be a failing of his own history, his own awakening, of his own historical roots, for him not to follow through on these tentative steps.”

Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in these situations, Habib’s voice was stifled when we most needed to hear him speak.

University of Johannesburg photo via the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Reconnecting with your audience

I’ll be leading a discussion on “Blogging, Social Media and Journalism” tomorrow from 10:45 a.m. to noon at the annual convention of the New England Newspaper & Press Association at the Park Plaza. I’ve put together some slides (above), but I’m conceiving this session as an unconference, and I want to turn it over to the editors and reporters who’ll be attending as quickly as possible.

The blabbing continues. From 3:45 to 5 p.m., Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub and I will lead a workshop on “Writing for the Web.”

Finally, on Saturday from 1:45 to 3:15 p.m., I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on social media that’s part of the ACLU of Massachusetts “Secrecy, Surveillance and Sunlight” conference at UMass Boston. I’ll be joined by Northeastern University Law School professor Hope Lewis, ACLUM online communications coordinator Danielle Riendeau and ACLUM communications director Christopher Ott.

Now, to get back to those slides (and sorry for the funny line breaks; there’s something about SlideShare that I’m obviously missing). There are a number of examples I’ll be talking about that are worth taking a deeper look at. So I thought I’d post some links here.

ACLU attorney Wunsch on the anti-SLAPP ruling

Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, e-mailed her thoughts on the state Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that journalists are not protected by a state law prohibiting “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — also known as the anti-SLAPP statute. The Associated Press covers the ruling here. Background here. Below is Wunsch’s e-mail, presented in its entirety.

Despite our amicus brief urging otherwise, the SJC has affirmed Judge Hines’s Superior Court denial of the special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute that had been filed by the journalist, Hollander, after she was sued by the developer, Fustolo. The unanimous opinion is written by Justice Botsford. Her opinion focuses on the fact that Hollander was not seeking to redress a grievance or to petition for relief of her own. She says, “As in Kobrin, the defendant’s conduct was not an attempt to redress a wrong he suffered, nor was he petitioning on his own behalf.”

Although the opinion says that a person is protected only if personally seeking redress of a grievance of his or her own, Justice Botsford distinguishes a case in which an attorney was given protection under the anti-SLAPP statute for his statements on behalf of his clients, and not for himself. To do that, she asserts that reporters occupy a different position with respect to a petitioning party than does the party’s attorney.

“There is nothing about the role or function of a staff reporter of an independent newspaper that by its nature renders the reporter a representative or agent of every, or indeed any, community organization that the reporter may cover,” particularly where the reporter denies representing a particular viewpoint. She contrasts this with Baker v. Parsons, where a biologist employed by an organization testified about her views and was protected by the SLAPP statute. (This reasoning seems to leave out of the equation whether the media outlet itself is the “petitioning party.” She seems to assume that it is only the community-based advocacy groups whose views the journalist is promoting.)

Thus, one of our concerns, that employees of advocacy organizations would not be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, appears alleviated. Even if you are working for someone else as an advocate, as long as it is clear you are advocating for something, you should be protected.

Justice Botsford does reject the concept in Judge Hines’ opinion that because Hollander was paid, she had a private reason for her reporting, and was not sued for her petitioning alone. Being paid does not take a person out of the SLAPP protection.

Finally, Justice Botsford disagrees that this ruling will chill journalists. She cites New York Times v. Sullivan and the protection for reporters under that and under the fair-report doctrine.

As I read the opinion, a reporter writing news stories that are supposedly “objective” will not be protected by the SLAPP statute, despite the very broad definition of petitioning activity. If an editor or publisher wants to stir up the public to get them to support government action by focusing a series of news articles on the subject, too bad. No anti-SLAPP statute protection seemingly for the journalist despite the fact that the definition of petitioning includes this. I do not think this result is correct.

Under the Botsford decision, an opinion columnist is likely going to be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, as is an employee of an advocacy organization. It seems that the concept of objective fair news reporting operates here to deprive news reporters of anti-SLAPP statute protection. One question is whether the newspaper publisher will be protected. The Botsford opinion talks about advocacy organizations but doesn’t seem to recognize that news media organizations can be advocacy organizations or be the “petitioning party” itself, engaged in activity that meets the definition of petitioning under the statute.

ACLU lawyer explains libel and SLAPP

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, offers further analysis of how the state’s anti-SLAPP law would modify libel law if journalist-activist Fredda Hollander wins her appeal, now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” and the anti-SLAPP law is aimed at preventing people from abusing the legal system by hauling activists into court.) Wunsch writes in part:

The defendant, the petitioner, may have made some misstatements that are harmful to the plaintiff’s reputation, but in order to give some breathing space to the right to petition, the law provides that as long as the petitioning wasn’t baseless, the SLAPP suit should be thrown out. Some people might think that is unfair but because society benefits when people aren’t afraid to get involved in local government issues, the statute gives them some extra protection.

To which I would add that though anti-SLAPP protection for journalists might offer them some extra protection against libel suits, the overall effect would probably be slight.

In most cases, I suspect, the person bringing the allegedly abusive suit (in Hollander’s case, North End developer Steven Fustolo) would be deemed a public figure. And under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Times v. Sullivan standard, a public figure can’t win a libel case unless he’s able to prove that the person he’s suing made false, defamatory statements knowing they weren’t true, or showing reckless disregard for the truth.

My standard disclosure: Hollander paid me to write an affidavit on her behalf at an earlier stage of her case.

Earlier coverage.

The right direction

In following up on DevalPatrick.com this morning, I found that the privacy concerns have been largely addressed. Now, when you try to create a new account, the very first thing you have to do is enter an e-mail address. Next, you are prompted to enter your name, address and community. I tried to enter just my last name and town, as I did yesterday, and was blocked from going any further.

It still needs some work. It looks as though the system won’t accept “St.” as an abbreviation for “Street,” but will accept “St” (without the period). But this is a huge improvement over yesterday.

Given that folks at the Patrick campaign seem to get it, why do some people continue to defend this breach of privacy? Despite the challenge I issued yesterday, no one has been able to show me a Web site that offers quite the smorgasbord of information that DevalPatrick.com was making available to people. And yet.

The usually sensible Amused but Informed Observer writes to Media Nation wanting to know how Patrick’s Web site is (or, now, was) “any different from the street lists that have been sold in town clerk’s offices since the beginning of time.” Answer: Because you have to walk into the city or town clerk’s office and either buy a directory — or use it there — for just that one community. No easy, technology-enhanced fishing expeditions, in other words.

Amused and several others compare what the Patrick site was doing to what’s available at online registries of deeds. OK, I’ll bite. Here is the site for the Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds, serving the heart of Media Nation. It serves 33 cities and towns, which means that you can’t do one-stop shopping for all of the state’s 351 communities, as you could with the Patrick site. And yes, I was able to look up some mortgage information about someone I know. But it’s not very user-friendly, and you have to be very specific about what you’re trying to find.

Finally, Tom Keane was among those who pointed out that DevalPatrick.com was hardly alone in (accidentally) offering a reverse phonebook. Yes, of course. I love reverse phonebooks; here’s the one I generally use. Unlike commercial services, though, DevalPatrick.com presumably had access to unlisted phone numbers, since it was based on state records.

My bottom line is this: Before it was fixed, the Patrick site was violating people’s privacy. And if you could somehow cobble together similar examples from government sites, commercial services and the like, it doesn’t matter, because the Patrick folks were violating your privacy on a partisan political site, paid for with campaign contributions. It was wrong, and I’m glad it’s been fixed.

Of course, if Patrick’s people want anyone other than their sycophants to take the site seriously as a tool of governance, they’re going to have to get that big “Contribute” button off. Not likely, eh?

Breach of privacy at DevalPatrick.com

After reading about Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s concern (Globe story here; Herald story here) that DevalPatrick.com was not sufficiently protecting users’ privacy, I decided to experiment by starting the process of becoming a registered user.

First I was asked to enter my name or phone number. I entered “Dan Kennedy,” along with my town. No go. So then I entered just “Kennedy,” again along with my town.

Whoa! I got 78 names along with the streets they live on. The list consisted of everyone in my town named “Kennedy,” “Kenneth” or, oddly enough, “Kent,” “Kondo” or “Kimby.” Yes, Mrs. Media Nation and I were among the 78.

What’s weird about this is that the names are listed apparently for the sole purpose of your being able to verify that one of them is you. But you get the complete list without actually having to complete the registration process. So I can enter “Chen” and “Wellesley” and get another nice long list of names and streets, or, say, “Purcell” and “Weston.” Oh, look! There’s Pat Purcell, publisher of the Boston Herald.

I have no idea why this is necessary. Certainly I can’t think of another Web site for which I’ve registered that requires me to choose from a list of names. I enter my name, and away I go. I suppose the DevalPatrick.com scheme makes it easier to avoid the problem of someone posting nutty comments under a pseudonym. But can’t an intern at this campaign-contribution-funded site intercept those comments? Surely that would be better than violating everyone’s privacy.

The site carries with it this disclaimer: “www.devalpatrick.com believes strongly in protecting people’s privacy. Data on this site is limited to ONLY data that is now publicly available at any number of locations, including city and town halls, and websites. The site further limited data today by eliminating specific street address numbers.”

Is that right? Can any of Media Nation’s readers find a single Web site that displays entire lists of people along with the streets that they live on? (If you can, I’ll post it.) Yes, you can always get stuff like this by going to your town or city clerk’s office. But the hassle of having to do that is in itself a guarantee of a certain degree of privacy.

I’m with John Reinstein of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who tells the Globe’s Andrea Estes, “I’m puzzled by the whole thing.” And, unfortunately, I have to agree with the Herald’s Casey Ross, who calls this “yet another embarrassing misstep” for the governor.

And no, I didn’t complete the registration process.

Even worse: I just tried registering by entering my phone number, and up popped the Media Nation family. Unlike the registration-by-name feature, you don’t have to enter a city or town when you enter a phone number. So DevalPatrick.com also works as a very nice reverse phonebook, using data you were required to provide to the state and paid for by a partisan political-campaign committee.

The Pentagon’s spies

For some time now, the ACLU has been trying to determine the extent to which the Pentagon has spied on antiwar groups. For instance, in my annual Muzzle Awards roundup for the Phoenix last Fourth of July, I noted that ACLU chapters in Maine and Rhode Island had joined efforts to force the Defense Department to turn over records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, yesterday we learned a whole lot more. Bloomberg reports that 2,821 organizations or events involving Americans were logged into a database of terrorist threats, known as TALON, as of December 2005 — and that 186 of those involved antiwar protests organized by the Quakers and other groups.

The ACLU observes:

The Pentagon’s misuse of the TALON database must be viewed in the wider context of increased government surveillance of U.S. citizens. With the help of phone companies, the National Security Agency has been tapping phones and reading email without a warrant. The FBI has gathered information about peace activists, and recruited confidential informants inside groups like Greenpeace and PETA. All of these actions are part of a broad pattern of the executive branch using “national security” as an excuse for encroaching on the privacy and free speech rights of Americans without adequate oversight.

You can read the ACLU press release here, and the full report (in PDF) here.

Ironically, the ACLU news comes at the same time that we learn the Bush administration has worked out a deal with the FISA court over the NSA’s wiretapping program. Don’t you feel better?