The U.S. military subpoenaed an independent journalist Thursday, demanding she testify as a witness for the prosecution of First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to be court-martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq.
"This morning at 8:45 someone came to my house and delivered a subpoena," Sarah Olson, an Oakland, California-based journalist, told IPS. "It’s absolutely outrageous. It’s a journalist’s job to report the news. It is not a journalist’s job to testify against their own sources."
Olson interviewed Watada in late May 2006, a few weeks before he formally refused to deploy to Iraq. In the interview, the first lieutenant explained his decision.
"I started asking, why are we dying?" he said. "Why are we losing limbs? For what? I listened to the President and his deputies say we were fighting for democracy; we were fighting for a better Iraq. I just started to think about those things. Are those things the real reasons why we are there, the real reasons we were dying? But I felt there was nothing to be done, and this administration was just continually violating the law to serve their purpose, and there was nothing to stop them."
As a result of his public comments, Watada was charged not only for refusing to deploy, but also for "contempt toward officials" and "conduct unbecoming of an officer."
His court-martial is scheduled to take place in February at Fort Lewis, Washington. The military has also approached at least two other reporters, independent journalist Dahr Jamail, who reports for Inter Press Service, and a reporter with the Honolulu Star Bulletin.
Jamail reported on a speech Watada gave at the Veterans for Peace National Convention in Seattle, Washington.
In a "charge sheet" against the lieutenant, the military quotes Watada’s comments at the gathering, calling them "disgraceful."
"Today, I speak with you about a radical idea," Watada said. "That to stop an illegal and unjust war, soldiers can choose to stop fighting it… If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the constitution extols if they stood up and threw their weapons down no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, ‘…Against all enemies foreign and domestic,’ what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the constitution is an obligation, not a choice."
In covering Watada’s speech, Jamail posted the officer’s comments verbatim on his website and the website truthout.org with a brief introduction, together with a link to a video version of the speech.
Explaining the subpoenaing of Olson and the expected subpoenas of two others, Joe Piek, external affairs chief at Ft. Lewis, told IPS that the U.S. military "does not seek reporters’ notes or original transcripts but simply wants to verify the accuracy of the story they reported."
"Are the quotes contained in their stories an accurate representation of the comments?" he said.
Beyond that, Piek said "how the prosecution plans on handling this case is something I don’t have knowledge of nor could I discuss it."
The military’s approach of journalists in the Watada case has alarmed observers within the media. Television reporter Gary Hill, who chairs the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, told IPS the subpoenas are "part of a continuing pattern of the federal government becoming more and more aggressive in going after journalists."
Hill said that in recent years, the federal government has done its best to make reporters part of the law enforcement process, which runs counter to the profession’s code of ethics.
"The reporters should do everything they can to avoid being in court," he said. "Reporters need to act independently. You shouldn’t become part of the government’s effort to try and punish an individual as a result of reporting you’ve done."
Hill said the military’s attempts to pull reporters into the courtroom raises the question of whether the Pentagon is "really more about trying to stifle free speech on this important issue [of the Iraq war], to discourage other soldiers from speaking out."
Indeed, while Watada is the only officer who has been court-martialed for refusing to fight in Iraq, he is hardly the only serviceman speaking out against the war.
U.S. military records show that between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers are currently unaccounted for. It is not known how many are "Absent Without Leave." or AWOL, for political or personal reasons.
Hundreds of antiwar soldiers are believed to be AWOL in Canada, however, and hundreds of soldiers who are still on duty have filed an "appeal for redress" under the Pentagon’s whistleblower protection laws, which allow for protected communication with Congress.
"As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq," the petition reads. "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home."
"It’s very rare for an officer to be charged with conduct unbecoming as a result of speech-related actions," journalist Olson told IPS. "What is happening at this point is that the army is using journalists to build its case against Lt. Watada and build its case against speaking to the press. It’s very important to look at it in that light."
(Inter Press Service)