Homeland Security’s Threat Against Journal an Attempt at Intimidating the Press

June 30th, 2014 · No Comments · journalism, role of government, Washington

By Denise Tessier

The federal government under the Obama administration has been aggressive about prosecuting leaks , and concurrent with it, New York Times reporter James Risen faces jail time for refusing to disclose a source – this despite the Shield Law that is supposed to protect reporters from such prosecution.

Now, it appears the government has embarked on another threat to journalism, this time actually stating that it could exclude the Albuquerque Journal from future press briefings because of the paper’s three-part investigative series by Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman about the Department of Homeland Security, which ran in the Journal in April.

This threat was mentioned at the tail end of a Journal story about a 10-month Homeland Security investigation that resulted in 22 arrests (“Homeland Security cracks auto theft case ,” June 27). In it, Journal reporter Ryan Boetel included this reference to Dennis Ulrich, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico and Texas:

Ulrich took the opportunity at Thursday’s news conference to criticize the Journal’s series on Homeland Security earlier this year and threatened not to invite the Journal to future news conferences. The series reported on questions about how the agency’s mission has expanded since it was created after the 9/11 attacks and its increasing participation in local law enforcement.

Ulrich didn’t offer specifics about what he thought was wrong with series, titled “Mission Creep,” and Homeland Security hasn’t requested any corrections to the report.

Those two paragraphs were easy to overlook, coming as they did at the end of a news story, but Coleman himself brought attention to the threat via Twitter , writing:

Check this out: DHS threatens to bar my newspaper from pressers over my recent series on “mission creep” at agency. http://t.co/Ae290HpZLo

Make no mistake, Ulrich’s comments – even if they are not carried out – are intended to have a chilling effect on the press.

While written for the Journal, with a New Mexico focus, the stories drawing the department’s ire were national in scope.  Coleman’s three-part series “MISSION CREEP” was one of the best enterprise pieces of journalism the Albuquerque Journal has done in recent years.

Part one of the series provided an overview of the department, reporting that it had grown from 180,000 full-time workers in 2003 to 240,000 full-time workers in 2014, with a budget that swelled commensurately from $29 billion to $61 billion. In “From fighting terrorists to arresting pickpockets, Homeland Security is a ‘Runaway Train’ ,” Coleman reported that the original HS mission — preventing terrorist attacks within the U.S., reducing vulnerability and assisting in attack recovery — had “greatly” expanded. From the story:

Today, in addition to protecting America’s borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.

Some government watchdogs and civil liberties advocates – and even the nation’s first Department of Homeland Security secretary – question how those actions serve the purpose set forth in the 2002 law.

Coleman quoted former Homeland Security “Secretary Tom Ridge as saying the department had lost its way, its primary focus “substantially diminished.”

Part two of the series reported on Homeland Security’s buttressing of local police forces, with the headline: “NM footprint grows: ‘We’ve up-armored’ .” Part three provided a chilling look into the billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry HS has placed at the disposal of cities and states (“Feds help militarize police department: Armored vehicles, high-tech weapons increasingly used in local law enforcement across U.S.” )

While the tone of the series was journalistically solid, the timing of its publication was dramatic. When the series hit the Journal’s front pages over three days in April, the state’s largest city was freshly reeling from the latest Albuquerque Police Department slaying. New Mexicans were realizing that police were killing citizens in greater numbers, using increasingly militaristic equipment and SWAT teams to deal with distress calls, and were showing up at citizen protests astride horses decked out more appropriately for an apocalypse-themed movie than Central Avenue.

For those who’ve ever wondered why concrete barriers sit at the ready at the mouth of Tijeras Canyon, long after road construction crews have gone, the series from the state’s mainstream daily provided validation of what some might consider paranoia, providing evidence that citizens should take note and be concerned. Journalistically, the series was a bright and brave spot for the Albuquerque Journal.

In preparing the story, Coleman relied on experts and written reports, such as the congressional “Safety at Any Price,” which looked at the $35 billion worth of grants Homeland Security had given local law enforcement over 10 years and which raised serious questions about the wisdom of such spending in American cities and towns. One example given in the report was that of a $285,933 BearCat armored police vehicle, which Homeland Security provided via grant to a New Hampshire town that had experienced one single solitary homicide in the two years previous to receiving the grant. The report said the armored vehicle could be used to patrol the town’s annual pumpkin festival.

In an interview, former secretary Ridge told Coleman:

I’m trying to figure out why these local communities need Humvees. . . they could probably use a couple of more patrolmen rather than another military vehicle.

After the series ran, a Journal reader from Española offered kudos to the paper “for finding a true journalistic voice and having the fortitude to put it right out there on the front pages with nice big headlines on three consecutive days.” From the piece by Patricia Victour (Op-Ed page May 9:

The fatal shooting of (homeless man) James Boyd is a perfect example of how this trend (of militarizing police) can impact any of us at any time, should we be unlucky enough to be caught in the cross hairs of a gung-ho team of quasi-military law enforcers who treat everyone they encounter as “the enemy.”

Closer to my home, it has just come to light that the tiny Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Department has received, thanks to the largesse of Homeland Security, an “MRAP,” while the Española Police Department was purportedly gifted a “tank” several months ago.

Lucky for us that apparently there are ex-military members of the Sheriff’s Department who know how to operate such a fearsome armored vehicle. Hopefully they will remember that they are in a small, peaceful American town and not Fallujah when called to duty over some low-key 911 incident that could be handled quietly with a little common sense and restraint instead of full-scale riot response.

Unfortunately, however, once these “hammers” are in the toolbox, everything looks like a nail. . .

That Homeland Security would criticize the Journal and Coleman for a job well done is disturbing. But on the bright side, perhaps it will bring renewed attention to Coleman’s series and its warning of the specter of danger, expense and inefficiency that is rising proportionately as Homeland Security expands its role.

As the Safety at Any Price report noted:

We cannot make every community around the country invulnerable to terrorist attacks by writing large checks from Washington, D.C. Not only is this an unrealistic goal, but it also undermines the very purpose of our efforts.

By letting every level of government – federal, state and local – do the things each does best, we can secure our cities and our freedoms.

Confusing these roles leads to waste, inefficiency and a false sense of security.

As retired Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Dan Klein told Coleman, “Homeland Security is involved with a lot of little things around town. Somebody in Washington needs to call a time-out.”

The Journal, in an editorial, agreed, saying:

New Mexico’s delegation needs to take a serious look at what was designed to target a specific threat and is instead becoming a threat in itself.

Postcript: A Santa Fe judge has ruled that the Santa Fe Reporter may proceed with its claims Gov. Susana Martinez discriminated and retaliated against the newspaper because of its critical coverage, a pertinent action in light of Homeland Security’s threat against the Journal. According to this morning’s story by Thom Cole:

In the ruling, (State District Judge Sarah) Singleton ruled that if the Governor’s Office has set up a communications office that purports to be available to discuss issues with the media – as alleged by the Reporter – then the communications office can’t discriminate against a member of the media based on that member’s opinion.

“Their obligation is to treat them the same,” the judge said.

Singleton said a governor’s communications office could be considered a public forum – similar to a news conference – where news media can obtain information and that access to such a forum can’t be limited based on the views of a member of the media.

The judge’s ruling – based on federal case law on free press protections under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – is to be spelled out in a written order to be issued next month.

In a pre-9/11 world, this ruling likely could have had implications for Homeland Security, if it were to carry out its threat of exclusion. It is a case worth following even on its own merits.

But as mentioned before, Homeland Security doesn’t have to carry out the exclusion threat. It’s already shown its hand at intimidation.

 

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