Freelance journalist Sarah Olson does not want to testify at First Lt. Ehren Watada’s court marshal in February. At around 8:45 a.m. on Thursday, she received a subpoena from the U.S. Army telling her to do so.
Watada is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment in Iraq. Because of his public comments against the war, Watada is charged not only with refusal to deploy, but with “contempt toward officials” and “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”
Oakland-based Olson interviewed Watada in May and published a story in question-and-answer form in the June 7 online publication Truthout.org about Watada’s decision to refuse deployment.
“My commanders told me that I could go to Iraq in a different capacity. I wouldn’t have to fire a weapon and I wouldn’t be in harm’s way,” wrote Olson, quoting Watada. “But that’s not what this is about. Even in my resignation letter I said that I would rather go to prison than do something that I felt was deeply wrong. I believe the whole war is illegal. I’m not just against bearing arms or fighting people, I am against an unjustified war.”
For about a month, the army has been talking to Olson about testifying, “but she declined to appear voluntarily,” said James Wheaton of the First Amendment Project in Oakland. Wheaton is working with lead attorney David Greene, advising Olson of her options. Olson emailed the Daily Planet, declining an interview.
“She feels it is not a reporter’s job to become an investigative tool of the state,” Wheaton said.
Olson has not decided how she will answer the subpoena, Wheaton said.
Joe Piek, spokesperson for the Army at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where Watada will be court marshaled in February, said, “The Army subpoena asked for Olson to report to verify the authenticity of the information contained in news stories.”
He added that the army wants Olson simply to testify that the writing that appears in print is an accurate reproduction of what was actually said. “We’re not asking for notes or records,” he said.
Olson’s apparently not the only reporter the army wants to testify for the prosecution. While Dahr Jamail, another Bay Area freelance journalist who has interviewed Watada, has not yet received a subpoena. His attorney, Oakland-based Dan Siegel, told the Daily Planet he believes through sources at Truthout, that Jamail will be subpoenaed.
An independent reporter who has written for the London Guardian and the Independent, among other outlets, Jamail transcribed an Aug. 14 speech Watada gave to a Veterans for Peace Convention and published that in Truthout with a short introduction.
“We need to make sure journalists are not treated as government agents,” Siegel said, adding that his client would have to decide whether he was going to comply with any eventual subpoena.
According to Aaron Glantz, writing Dec. 14 for Interpress News Service, the military has also approached a Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter about testifying.
Ehren Watada’s father, Bob Watada, is outspoken on the question of bringing in reporters to testify. “It’s intimidation,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s harassment of the media.”
If the journalists testify, it could hurt Watada’s case and, at the same time, it could help it, said Watada’s attorney Eric Seitz, speaking in a phone interview from Honolulu, Hawaii. “If they don’t testify, the government can’t prove they made the remark,” Seitz said. “They have to authenticate it—we’re not willing to agree [otherwise].”
But it would help Watada’s case if they testified to the context of the remarks, that they were made off the base and not in uniform, Seitz said.
By adding charges related to what Watada said and by trying to bring in journalists to attest to that, “they’re trying to suppress dissent,” Seitz said.
Berkeley resident and Society for Professional Journalism ethics committee member Peter Y. Sussman, while not familiar with the details of Olson’s subpoena or Jamail’s possible subpoena, noted that this “appears to be part of a pattern of intimidation of using journalists as an arm of law enforcement, undermining the freedom of the press.”
Sussman pointed to Josh Wolf, the San Francisco freelance journalist who refused to turn his videotapes of a demonstration over to police and is now serving time in federal prison. He may be jailed until the Grand Jury’s term expires in July. “Josh Wolf is currently in prison for acting as a journalist,” said Sussman, one of whose books is entitled, Committing Journalism.
“Our mission as journalists is jeopardized if we are perceived, because of a subpoena, as agents of the government.”
Army spokesperson Piek declined to comment on the ethics of compelling journalists to testify in court. “We don’t debate with SPJ on this,” he said.