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Why I object to testifying against Lt. Watada

by Sarah Olson (solson75 [at]
By Sarah Olson, Editor and Publisher (Commentary). December 30, 2006
In May of this year, I conducted an interview with Ehren Watada while working as a freelance journalist. Watada is a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq.

In the interview, Lieutenant Watada asserted that he had a duty as an officer to evaluate the legality of his orders and conduct himself accordingly. He said that he could not participate in the Iraq War because it was “manifestly illegal” and that his participation would make him a party to war crimes.

In June, Lieutenant Watada made national headlines when he refused to deploy to Iraq.
Lieutenant Watada continues to report for duty at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington while awaiting a February 2007 court-martial on one charge of “missing movement” and four charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Each of the latter four charges is based entirely on political speech. If convicted on all charges, Lieutenant Watada could spend up to six years in prison.

The U.S. Army has cobbled together portions of my interview with Lieutenant Watada and these statements comprise the foundation of one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. To substantiate this alleged crime, the Army has subpoenaed me to testify on behalf of their prosecution.

The dynamics of the situation are clear. When the military chooses to prosecute a soldier for expressing dissenting political positions to a member of the press, that journalist is unwittingly and inevitably forced into the middle of the conflict.

Among multiple issues this raises, it begs one central question: Doesn’t it fly in the face of the First Amendment to compel a journalist to participate in a government prosecution against a source, particularly in matters related to personal political speech?

It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion.

Further, it is stunningly ironic that the Army seeks my testimony – the testimony of a journalist – in a case against free speech itself. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?

When journalists are subpoenaed to confirm the veracity of their reporting, they typically agree to this limited request. What makes this case different is that the thing in question is the political nature of Lieutenant Watada’s speech. Participating in the U.S. Army’s court-martial forces me to build the case against my source and contribute to an act of suppression against the media’s ability to report the news.

As a journalist, I cannot support or criticize the thoughts of an interview subject. My job is to record those thoughts accurately and provide a public forum for debate. If the Army succeeds in turning me into an arm of their investigation, it will chill not only press freedom but also free speech. This is a slippery slope that bears watching and requires vigilance.

It seems clear that the U.S. Army is attempting to redefine the parameters of acceptable speech and to classify dissent as a punishable offense. Subpoenaing journalists in this case unequivocally sends the message that dissent is neither tolerated nor permitted. Utilize your constitutionally guaranteed speech rights and go to prison. What rational soldier would agree to speak with me or any other member of the media if jail was a likely result?

When the press cannot or does not reflect the vibrant and varied perspectives within our society, it is reduced to a simple transcriber of government press releases. The record of existing dissent is erased, and a dumbed-down, homogenized version of “The American Experience” is all that’s left in its place.

I stand firmly by a conviction I share with many: a member of the press should never be placed in the position of aiding a government prosecution of political speech. This goes against the grain of even the most basic understanding of the First Amendment’s free press guarantees and the expectation of a democracy that relies on a free flow of information and perspectives without fear of censor or retribution.

You may ask: Do I want to be sent to prison by the U.S. Army for not cooperating with their prosecution of Lieutenant Watada? My answer: Absolutely not. You may also ask: Would I rather contribute to the prosecution of a news source for sharing newsworthy perspectives on an affair of national concern? That is the question I wholly object to having before me in the first place.

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