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Lt. Ehren Watada's antiwar stand
On trial for speaking the truth

February 2, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

LT. EHREN WATADA, the first U.S. officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq, will face court-martial proceedings at Fort Lewis in Washington state starting February 5. If convicted by a military judge of all the charges against him, Watada could be put behind bars for six years.

SARAH OLSON--an independent journalist based in Oakland, Calif. who has covered Watada's case since last May--was subpoenaed as a witness in the proceedings. Supporters launched a vigorous defense campaign, and on January 29, the Army announced that Olson wouldn't be compelled to testify.

Prior to the announcement, Olson talked to Socialist Worker's PHIL GASPER about Ehren Watada's act of resistance--and why the military's attempt to make her testify represents a threat to journalistic freedom.

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HOW DID you get involved with Ehren Watada's case?

I'VE BEEN covering war resisters, conscientious objectors, other parts of the anti-war movement inside and outside the military, since 2003--since before that really--and I've basically been telling people all along, "Send people my way when you have people in the military who want to tell their story, I'd love to interview them."

What you can do

Supporters of Lt. Ehren Watada are organizing for a national day of action on February 5, including a protest at the gates of Fort Lewis in Washington state, where the court-martial trial will take place. See the Thank You Lt. Ehren Watada Web site for information about the case and what you can do to support him.

To find out more about Sarah Olson's case and the fight to protect freedom of the press, go to the Free Press Working Group Web site.

Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S. Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site for news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, newly republished by Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

 

I think it's an important story and it's not told enough. In April or May [of 2006], some people contacted me and said, "We have a person who will be the highest-ranking member of the military to refuse publicly to deploy to Iraq, and would you like to interview him?" Of course, I said yes.

I sat down with Ehren when he was here in the Bay Area in May on leave. He had not yet gone public, and so we sat down in the National Radio Project studios and recorded an interview. It was probably about 70 minutes, and I published it the day he had his press conference. On June 7, I published a print interview, and I also published at that time some radio pieces. Later on, I published many follow-up print stories and then some follow-up radio stories as well, with the National Radio Project.

WHAT IS so significant about his case?

HE IS the highest-ranking member of the military to refuse publicly to deploy to Iraq--that in itself is a very big thing.

In a very organized fashion, he called a press conference and outlined clearly and articulately his reasons for refusing to go to Iraq, citing domestic and international law and so on. Later, he also gave a speech at the Veterans for Peace convention, outlining the ways that the antiwar movement needed to support GI resistance and why GI resistance was important to ending the war.

There is increased GI resistance today in the military. The military's own numbers show that over 50 percent of troops in Iraq would prefer to leave--that they're becoming increasingly unhappy with the war.

There's the Appeal for Redress [www.appealforredress.org], which started out as a bunch of active-duty military members signing a statement to their congresspeople and has now morphed into them holding press conferences and speaking out publicly. Everybody has heard the stories about the soldiers blogging and the military's attempts to silence that. All of this is not my analysis of things--this is simply a point of fact.

Then you have groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War that are growing very, very rapidly. So when you put Lt. Watada within the context of this, I think his case is very, very significant.

Lt. Watada is facing a court-martial starting on February 5. He is facing five charges. One is missing troop movement, just simply not going to Iraq. The other four are related to the statements that he either made publicly at press conferences or speaking, or to individual journalists like myself.

If he's convicted of all charges, he's facing six years in prison. If he's convicted of the speech-related charges he's facing four years--four years in prison for speaking to the press.

Everybody kind of accepts that when you join the military, you give away certain rights to speak freely, and the question in his case is whether he violated those guidelines. When you look at the case law dating back to the mid-1960s, you're looking at people who were court-martialed for, in one case, a man holding a sign saying, "We want more than a choice between petty, ignorant fascists" in 1969.

Lt. Watada's statements were calm and reasoned and rational. More than anything else, they stick out as the words of a patriot who sincerely loves his country and is really concerned about the way it's going. Much of what he's saying also is a point of fact. It's not contested anymore--like that the reasons we went to Iraq were inaccurate and false.

So it raises some interesting questions--if you're speaking factually, can you also be speaking disrespectfully, or in ways that disrupt the order of the military?

IT'S LIKE the old sedition law in which truth was not a defense. I understand that the judge in the court-martial isn't allowing Lt. Watada to use the illegality of the war as part of his defense. Did he expect to face such severe charges when he went public with his refusal to be deployed to Iraq?

I DON'T know what he thought. I certainly know that he's very smart.

He had many conversations with many different people--many first Gulf War conscientious objectors like Aimee Allison and Jeff Patterson, and people like Camilo Mejía.

I know he'd been told that when you hold a press conference and denounce the war, things will be different for you than if you simply slip away into the night quietly. He recognized that. Part of his desire wasn't simply to avoid duty himself, but to really help bring about an end to the war. I think that's something he was thinking about.

One of the things that comes to mind is his closing statement to me: "I think that we are all given freedoms and liberties by the Constitution, but I think the one God-given freedom and right that we really have is freedom of choice. The moment we tell ourselves that we no longer have that choice is the moment we take that one freedom away. The only freedom we have.

"And I just want to tell everybody--especially people who doubt the war--that you do have that one freedom, and that's something that they can never take away. Yes, they will imprison you. They'll throw the book at you. They'll try to make an example out of you, but you do have that choice. And that is something that you'll have to live with for the rest of your life."

He certainly knew intellectually what he was getting into. But I think there's probably a difference between knowing it intellectually and being in the thick of it, as he's been for the last six or seven months.

IT DOES seem that as more and more people in the country reject the war and want to see it end, the military authorities are taking a very hard line against a prominent antiwar objector in their own ranks.

AND IT'S not just him either. Augustine Aguayo comes to mind--someone who had been to Iraq, decided he couldn't go back, told his commanding officers, and they said, "Oh no, you're going to have to go back anyway."

When they came to his house in Germany to personally escort him from the base to the plane to Iraq, he actually climbed out of the window and went AWOL. He recently turned himself in, and they sent him back to Germany. He's being charged with desertion, and he's facing seven years in prison.

I think this is where the press issues come in. The Army has subpoenaed me to testify in the court-martial of Lt. Watada, and I've been taking the position that this is not something a journalist does--to participate in a government prosecution, particularly of political speech. Doing that erodes the separation between press and government, and it turns journalists into an investigative arm of the government.

One of the deeply concerning things about that is when journalists are viewed as the eyes and ears of the state, the press is no longer seen as a platform for discussion and debate--it's more seen as stenographers or transcribers of government press releases. Then you're getting only one point of view, and that's not an acceptable role for the press.

I think everybody understands it's not a good thing to have a press that doesn't ask hard questions and doesn't present all different kinds of perspective, regardless of whether they're popular with the current administration. Different perspectives deserve to be treated fairly and to be heard.

As you have this growing GI resistance, it should be quite concerning to all of us that the army is attempting to use journalists to prosecute their case against Watada. Not only is that saying that dissent will not be tolerated--which is a perfectly expected thing for the military to say--but it also says we're going to compel the civilian press to collude in this attempt to silence this perspective that we don't like. For me, that's quite alarming.

IS THERE any way in which your testimony could play a crucial role in this trial? It seems that Lt. Watada has made so many public statements and given so many press conferences that what he's said is in the public record already. Why do they need you to certify that he said these things? He's not denying them, right?

HE'S NOT, but so far, he's also not stipulated that he said them. Their line of defense is that he has a constitutional right to say these things, but they haven't certified that he said them. It's a legal technicality--when things appear in print, legally, they're hearsay until one or the other of the parties verifies their accuracy.

What's odd is that I have radio recordings of these things that are in the public domain--that are broadcast quality .mp3 files, that have been aired all over the country, that are downloadable. So if the military wanted to, they could download them and verify the statements themselves.

IS IT common to use material from the media in court?

THE MILITARY is the only place that I know of in the United States where you could have a trial like this--where someone could be facing four years in prison for personal political speech.

I think it's fairly common to have news articles or whatever as evidence in one way or another, but in this case, it's almost like his appearance in the news article is the crime itself.

At one point in the pretrial hearing, which I didn't attend, it was reported that Dan Kuecker, the lead prosecutor, said something along the lines of "What's offensive to the military is not just that he said it, but that he said it to more than one person"--drawing this line between having a conversation and saying things to the press.

WHAT ARE you facing in terms of the threats they have against you to testify?

IF I don't testify--and I'm not publicly saying at this point what I will or won't do--I'm just asserting that no journalist should have to be in this position, so they should back off, as the Los Angeles Times put it in their editorial.

But if I am forced to go up there and testify, and I don't, I would face a felony contempt-of-court charge that's punishable by up to six months in prison and/or up to a $500 fine, depending on what they decide is appropriate.

WHAT KIND of support have you been getting from other journalists and people concerned about your case?

A LOT. There have been a number of professional groups, like the Society for Professional Journalists, Military Reporters and Editors, and PEN American Center's Freedom to Write Project.

All these groups have made statements or something of that nature saying that the military's attempts to use journalists in this prosecution are "unseemly" and "repugnant," and in violation of the spirit of the First Amendment, and so on. The LA Times also wrote an editorial calling on the military to stop pestering journalists in this way.

I expect other groups in the next two weeks to come forward as well. A number of journalists and writers and authors have expressed outrage at this attempt to haul journalists into military court.

All journalists want to stand behind their work and say to everyone, "Yes, I reported accurately." I'm no exception to that. I'm very proud of the work I did on this story, I did report accurately, and I say that to everyone I can. But that's been difficult for some people to get beyond.

THEY DON'T understand why you wouldn't say that in court?

EXACTLY.

WILL THIS case set a precedent if journalists are called to testify against someone they interviewed?

I'VE BEEN asking everyone I know--all the legal experts and military experts that I talk to--if they know of another case like this, and no one knows of one. Certainly, it's safe to say that it's very unusual, and it hasn't happened in decades.

Watada's case will be quite precedent-setting in terms of the allowability of dissent within the military, particularly for officers, but probably, it will extend beyond that. For the case law that they're using today to prosecute him, a lot of it comes from the mid-1960s, early Vietnam period, and to have his case on the books today will extend it decades into the future, defining the scope of allowable dissent and allowable speech.

IF PEOPLE want to support you in the current situation, is there anything they can do that would be helpful?

WE HAVE a website, www.freepresswg.org, and we're asking people to send letters. We're working on a congressional action.

It's unlikely that any shield law would protect me in this situation--it's just too much of a unique and odd place to be in. Nonetheless, though we have a perfectly good First Amendment, the courts have again and again ruled that, for whatever ridiculous reasons, it doesn't apply. So it seems like in the absence of political and legal bodies that will enforce the First Amendment, we do actually need a federal shield law.

John Conyers is chair of the House Judiciary Committee now, and he's made some very good statements about a shield law recently. It seems like the San Francisco Chronicle BALCO reporters [who face jail for refusing to reveal their sources in a case about steroid use in sports] have been the flashpoint for him.

I was at the Media Reform Conference in January, and I heard Paul Rieckhoff speak. He's the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He recently wrote a book called Chasing Ghosts. He's very much in opposition to the war, but I don't know that the organization itself is.

He gave a really fantastic talk at the conference that is haunting to me, about how he and many other veterans felt betrayed by the press' inability to do its job--to ask tough questions, to follow the obvious leads and to question the sources of highly non-credible intelligence reports.

The signs were all there. Certainly, there were plenty of credible critics in the antiwar movement. His point was that the press' role in it was really shameful, and he felt that journalists owed it to the men and women fighting in Iraq--that if we're going to march them into war to fight and to die, it better be a good war. It needs to be something that at least has been fully vetted by the press.

It's worth thinking about, because obviously the New York Times and other major media venues have published their mea culpas--oh gosh, we got it wrong, we're so sorry, we fell down on the job, whoops.

But Paul Rieckhoff's point was that it's bigger than just saying you're sorry. People are dying, families are being destroyed, men and women are coming back with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and on and on. His point was that the press has a responsibility to ask difficult questions, to challenge assumed authority, to present all points of view fairly.

When you really look at the debacle we're in today, it's uncontroversial from a non-partisan, apolitical perspective that the press really does have a deep responsibility in creating checks on government power. And what we're doing today--the situation we're in in Iraq--is one horrifying example of what happens when you don't have that.

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