The case against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to deploy with his unit to Iraq and made statements against the war and President Bush, took an unusual turn yesterday when the army subpoenaed the journalists who originally reported on Watada’s statement:
Army prosecutors have sent subpoenas to journalists in Oakland and Honolulu demanding testimony about quotes they attributed to an officer who faces a court-martial after denouncing the war in Iraq and refusing to deploy with his unit.(HT: Instapundit)
The Army’s subpoenas, which the journalists said they received last week, put them in the uncomfortable position of being ordered to help the Army build its case against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
“It’s not a reporter’s job to participate in the prosecution of her own sources,’’ said Sarah Olson, an Oakland freelance journalist and radio producer. “When you force a journalist to participate, you run the risk of turning the journalist into an investigative tool of the state.’’
But Olson, who received her subpoena Thursday, acknowledged she has no legal grounds to refuse to testify, since she is being asked only to confirm the accuracy of what she wrote about Watada and not to disclose confidential sources or unpublished material.
Normally, she said, “no one, myself included, has any problem verifying the veracity of their reporting.’’ The ethical problem in this case, she said, is that she would be aiding the prosecution of one of the dissidents and war critics who regularly trust her to tell their stories to the public.
I can understand the reporter’s reluctance to testify. But the defense attorney says he doesn’t mind the reporters giving testimony – ostensibly because he is basing his defense of the soldier on Watada’s First Amendment rights:
Watada’s lawyer, Eric Seitz, said he understands journalists’ unhappiness at having to appear in court but would not object if they complied.
“It doesn’t bother us or disturb us that reporters testify Lt. Watada made those comments,’’ he said. The main issue, Seitz said, is “whether he had First Amendment rights to say what he did.’’
Both Olson and her lawyer, David Greene, declined to say whether she would comply with the subpoena, which requires her to take part in a hearing in January as well as the court-martial. She could be held in contempt of the military tribunal and jailed if she refuses.
I think Olson is overreacting. She’s not being asked to reveal anything. She will be asked to confirm the accuracy of her reporting, something any reporter worth their salt should gladly do whether it be to the public or a military tribunal. In fact, she appears to be setting up something of a strawman in order to justify non compliance:
Before sending subpoenas to the journalists who reported Watada’s comments, the Army asked them to verify their quotes voluntarily, but they refused. Olson said last week that free expression is endangered by both the Army’s case against Watada and its attempt to enlist journalists.
“If conscientious objectors know that they can be prosecuted for speaking to the press and that the press will participate in their prosecution, it stands to reason that they would think twice before being public about their positions,’’ she said. “What we need in this country now is more dialogue and not less.’’
This is nonsense. First of all, conscientious objectors will never be prosecuted for “speaking to the press.” That’s ridiculous. What they might be prosecuted for is what Lt. Watada is being charged with; failure to deploy with his unit and “conduct unbecoming an officer” for his statements against the Commander in Chief. Would Watada be prosecuted if he simply stated his opposition to the war and left out his criticism of the Commander in Chief? I doubt it.
There have been plenty of examples both here in America and in Iraq where soldiers have not been shy about declaring their opposition to the war. As far as I know, none of them have been disciplined. And if they have, that too would be ridiculous. Joining the army doesn’t mean that you lose your right to protected speech under the First Amendment. But criticism of the CIC is a different story. It goes against both military tradition and common sense. You can’t have an army in the field second guessing the decisions of the CIC. This would affect morale not to mention lead to chaos in the ranks.
There is one more aspect to this case that troubles me; it appears that the Army decided to make an example of Watada. Here’s Watada’s statement – puerile though it may be – as well as an offer the young man made that I can’t understand why the military didn’t agree to:
Watada, raised in Honolulu, joined the Army in 2003 after graduating from college and was first stationed in South Korea. In public appearances and interviews, he has said he was motivated to enlist by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but had misgivings about the Iraq war from the start and eventually concluded that it was both immoral and illegal.
“As I read about the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war, I was shocked,’’ Olson quoted him as saying in one of the statements cited by the Army as conduct unbecoming an officer. “I became ashamed of wearing the uniform. How can we wear something with such a time-honored tradition, knowing we waged war based on a misrepresentation and lies?’’
The interview, conducted in May, was published on truthout.org on June 7, the same day Watada declined to go to Iraq with his armored vehicle unit in the 2nd Infantry Division. He said he offered to redeploy to Afghanistan or resign his commission but was turned down.
As I understand it, such requests for reassignment based on conscientious objections are unusual but have been honored in the past. As have requests to resign a commission for similar reasons been accepted. It seems to me – as completely unschooled in military procedures as any civilian – that the army wants to single Watada out and make an example of his objections to the Iraq War. If so, we can reasonably ask if Lt. Watada is being treated fairly.
Despite sounding like a Michael Moore clone, Watada is entitled to his opinions. However, his refusal to deploy based on his political opinions cannot be allowed under any circumstances. But what about his refusal to join his unit in Iraq based on his personal, moral precepts?
These are tricky waters indeed for both Watada and the army to navigate. Watada refusal of duty is not based specifically on the moral tenets of any organized religion but rather on his own personal, moral code. In this respect, Watada’s refusal of a lawful order to deploy may be seen in the same moral context as a soldier who refuses to carry out an order to shoot civilians or kill babies. It doesn’t matter if we believe Watada to be a misguided, simple minded fool. Each soldier is responsible to their own concept of morality. In this sense, Watada’s dissent may be seen as an honorable means to live up to his own personal code of moral conduct – as long as he is willing to accept the consequences of his dissent.
That last being the key to any act of civil disobedience. Because in essence, that is what Watada is doing in a very public way; he is trying to influence others by sacrificing his career and possibly his freedom. We can violently disagree with his methods and his rationale; but we can also recognize that in a democratic, civil society, this is an honorable means to disagree with the government.
Some may disagree with my characterization of Watada’s actions as “civil” disobedience. And they would be technically correct. But the practical consequences of Watada’s protest go beyond military justice and enter the realm of politics. For this reason, Watada’s protest impacts civil society much more than it impacts military jurisprudence.