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Category: Government Secrecy

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James Risen and the reporter’s privilege status quo

Many thanks to Danielle, Frank, and the Concurring Opinions crew for inviting me to guest blog this month. As Danielle mentioned, I’m primarily an IP and media law guy, and I anticipate blogging about things like Aereo, trolls, and the future of newsgathering. (Like Harry, I can be found commenting on lots of other things @bradagreenberg.) I start today with a reporter’s ability to protect the identity of confidential sources…

This week the Supreme Court denied the petition of New York Times investigative reporter James Risen. For years, Risen has fought government efforts to compel disclosure of whether a former CIA official was Risen’s source for a story about a botched CIA plot to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear agency. Risen included this confidential information in his 2006 best-selling book State of War. The former CIA official is being prosecuted for leaking to Risen, and, last July, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Risen must testify at the trial. In a last gasp, Risen petitioned the Supreme Court, asking whether  journalists in a federal criminal trial have a qualified constitutional privilege against revealing confidential sources or should have a common law privilege under Federal Rule of Evidence 501.

The Court having declined to answer this question, Risen now faces testifying or being held in contempt. (Or he must throw himself on the “hinted” mercy of the Justice Department.) This is a great tragedy for a great journalist. But it is not necessarily a great tragedy for great journalism.

Risen’s appeal was a case of Be Careful What You Wish For.

At the core of Risen’s protest is the often-mistaken belief that reporters cannot be compelled to disclose their confidential sources. The Supreme Court first addressed this question forty-two years ago in Branzburg v. Hayes, in which the Court effectively split 4-1-4 on whether journalists had a constitutional privilege against compelled disclosure. The majority opinion held that journalists do not.

But Branzburg did not foreclose such protections. State courts have long shielded media from compelled disclosure, with forty-nine states and the District of Columbia offer varying statutory or common law protections. And Justice Powell’s concurrence suggested that journalists might have a constitutional privilege on different facts, particularly if the subpoena had not been issued by a grand jury. Since then, the circuit courts have recognized a variety of protections: “nine circuits have acknowledged, and only the Sixth Circuit has rejected, a qualified privilege for confidential information in civil cases, and … four circuits extend the privilege in criminal cases and some over non-confidential information in civil cases.” (That’s from this essay about the flawed Free Flow of Information Act of 2013; the federal media shield folly was also mentioned in my previous guest visit.) The result has been that journalists get different levels of protection in different jurisdictions—but in most jurisdictions they get some protection.

Had the Supreme Court agreed to hear Risen’s petition, it is likely that there would be uniformity regarding compelled disclosure of journalists’ confidential info. (It is unclear whether that uniformity would have been limited to confidential sources or would have extended to nonconfidential notes, unused materials, journalist observations, etc.) That uniformity could have increased protections and thereby decreased disincentives to sharing sensitive or confidential information.

Yet, in many circuits the uniformity might cut the other way, restating Branzburg in a manner that results in a weaker media shield. In fact, this seems more likely. In a post-legacy-media era in which people do journalism but aren’t necessarily journalists, legislators and judges have found it so difficult to determine to whom a reporter’s privilege should apply. (The debate over the federal media shield bill is paradigmatic. See n.5.) In this context, it is unlikely the Supreme Court would be willing to establish a broad reporter’s privilege—and in a national security case, for that matter.

Of course, just because the government can compel Risen to testify, does not mean that it should. The spirit of the First Amendment suggests otherwise…

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A Time for Action: The Double Gain of Freer Regions and the Double Speak about Talent Droughts

As Catherine Fisk and Danielle Citron point out in their thoughtful reviews here and here, the wisdom of freeing talent must go beyond private firm level decisions; beyond the message to corporations about what the benefits of talent mobility, beyond what Frank Pasquale’s smartly spun as “reversing Machiavelli’s famous prescription, Lobel advises the Princes of modern business that it is better to be loved than feared.” To get to an optimal equilibrium of knowledge exchanges and mobility, smart policy is needed and policymakers must to pay attention to research. Both Fisk and Citron raise questions about the likelihood that we will see reforms anytime soon. As Fisk points out — and as her important historical work has skillfully shown, and more recently, as we witness developments in several states including Michigan, Texas and Georgia as well as (again as Fisk and Citron point out) in certain aspects of the pending Restatement of Employment — the movement of law and policy has actually been toward more human capital controls rather than less. This is perhaps unsurprising to many of us. Like with the copyright extension act which was the product of heavyweight lobbying, these shifts were supported by strong interest groups. What is perhaps different with the talent wars is the robust evidence that suggests that everyone, corporations large and small, new and old, can gain from loosening controls. Citron points to an irony that I too have been quite troubled by: the current buzz is about the intense need for talent, the talent drought, the shortage in STEM graduates. As Citron describes, the art and science of recruitment is all the rage. But while we debate reforms in schooling and reforms in immigration policies, we largely neglect to consider a reality of much deadweight loss of through talent controls.

The good news is that not only in Massachusetts, where the governor has just expressed his support in reforming state law to narrow the use of  non-competes, but also in other state legislatures , courts and agencies, we see a greater willingness to think seriously about positive reforms. At the state level, the jurisdictional variations points to the double gain of regions that void or at least strongly narrow the use of non-competes. California for example gains twice: first by encouraging more human capital flow intra-regionally and second, by its willingness to give refuge to employees who have signed non-competes elsewhere. In other words, the positive effects stem not only from having the right policies of setting talent free but also from its comparative advantage vis-à-vis more controlling states. This brain gain effect has been shown empirically: areas that enforce strong post-employment controls have higher rates of departure of inventors to other regions. States that weakly enforce non-competes are on the receiving side of the cream of the crop. One can only hope that legislature and business leaders will take these findings very seriously.

At the federal level, in a novel approach to antitrust the federal government recently took up the investigation of anti-competitive practices between high-tech giants that had agreed not to poach one another’s employee. This in fact relates to Shubha Gosh’s questions about defining competition and the meaning of free and open labor markets. And it is a good moment to pause about the extent to which we encourage secrecy in both private and public organizations. It is a moment in which the spiraling scandals of economic espionage by governments coupled with leaks and demand for more transparency require us to think hard. In this context, Citron is right to raise the question of government 2.0 – for individuals to be committed and motivated to contribute to innovation, they need some assurances that their contributions will not be entirely appropriated by concentrated interests.

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On the NSA and Media Bias: An Extended Analysis

By Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, we reported that major US newspapers exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in their “post-Edward Snowden” coverage of the NSA. Our results ran counter to the general perception that major media outlets lean “traditionally liberal” on social issues. Given our findings, we decided to extend our analysis to see if the same bias was present in “traditionally conservative” and international newspapers.

Using the same methods described in our previous study, we examined total press coverage in the Washington Times, one of the top “traditionally conservative” newspapers in the US. We found that the Washington Times used pro-surveillance terms such as security or counterterrorism 45.5% more frequently than anti-surveillance terms like liberty or rights. This is comparable to USA Today‘s 36% bias and quantitatively greater than The New York Times‘ 14.1% or the Washington Post‘s 11.1%. The Washington Times, a “traditionally conservative” newspaper, had the same, if not stronger, pro-surveillance bias in its coverage as neutral/”traditionally liberal”-leaning newspapers.

In contrast, The Guardian, the major UK newspaper where Glenn Greenwald has reported most of Snowden’s disclosures, did not exhibit such a bias. Unlike any of the US newspapers we examined, The Guardian actually used anti-surveillance terms slightly (3.2%) more frequently than pro-surveillance terms. Despite the UK government’s pro-surveillance position (similar to and perhaps even more uncompromising than that of the US government), the Guardian‘s coverage has remained neutral overall. (Neutral as far as keyword frequency analysis goes, anyway; the use of other methods, such as qualitative analysis of article tone, may also be helpful in building a comprehensive picture.)

Our extended results provide additional context for our earlier report and demonstrate that our analysis is “capturing a meaningful divide.”

On a further note, as several commenters suggested in response to our original report, the US media’s pro-surveillance bias may be a manifestation of a broader “pro-state” bias. This theory may be correct, but it would be difficult to confirm conclusively. On many, even most, issues, the US government does not speak with one voice. Whose position should be taken as the “state” position? The opinion of the President? The Speaker of the House? The Chief Justice? Administration allies in Congress? In the context of the Affordable Care Act, is there no “pro-state” position at all, since the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice each have different, largely irreconcilable views?

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Interview with Marvin Kalb: The Road to War, Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

I could not have timed my chat with Marvin Kalb220px-Marvin_Kalb better. On Sunday, before talking about cyber hate for the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary Tour in Chicago, Kalb and I discussed his most recent book, The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution Press 2013). The timing was auspicious not just because the book had come out days before but because at least 40% of the nation was reeling from learning about the most recent abuse of Executive power:  the NSA’s PRISM program and leaked FISA court Verizon order.

Before I recount some of the highlights of our conversation, I wanted to begin with a wonderful and incredibly apt description of Kalb written by a UPI reporter:

[Kalb] is the senior statesman of U.S. media. Tall, handsome, brilliant, unfailingly courteous, Marvin Kalb looks and acts more like a senior statesman than the chief diplomatic correspondent he was for CBS News and NBC over 30 years when these networks cared about world news. Now these media organizations still bill themselves as world news networks but, most nights, forget about the rest of the world.

Following his prize-studded reportorial career, Kalb became the first director of journalism’s school of higher learning at Harvard — the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Now, still the profession’s senior statesman, he runs the center’s Washington office and hosts “The Kalb Report.” The author of two best-selling novels and a book titled, “One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 days That Transformed American Journalism,” Kalb’s 13th book — his best — excoriates Congress for relinquishing its constitutional obligation to declare war.

The U.S. News and World Report’s Jamie Stiehm describes Kalb’s new book as “an elegantseg3_ssa_3 synthesis of how easy, too easy, it has become for an American president, any American president, to go to war” with Congress “ceding its rightful role in declaring war and tends to go along with the man in the White House.” Kalb’s book argues that so much power should not be concentrated in the President.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

DC: Why has it been so easy for the Executive Branch to ignore the core constitutional guarantee that Congress declare war?

MK: We have a system of law undergirding Presidential authority to go to war — Congressional declaration of War and the power of the purse — yet it has been consistently ceded to the President. When I covered Vietnam in 1968, we had 500,000 troops on the ground. Who gave the President the authority to do so? I am a great believer of law, but if it is ignored with impunity, to whom do we turn?

DC: How did we get to that state of affairs–the President doing what he wants without check? Are things much different in light of recent revelations of our unsanctioned domestic intelligence apparatus?

MK: What we are witnessing this week stands as a confirmation of what we have ben seeing–unchecked Presidential power in the name of war time. In the Korea and Vietnam wars, one President after another made unchecked decisions and no one blew the whistle, most significantly Congress. Congress was successfully pressured to cede its power to the Executive Branch. For instance, only two Senators voted “no” for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. When one of those senators, Senator Morse, saw President Johnson, the President put his arm around the Senator and said “Wayne, you are a good American. We do not want to hurt the troops.” Johnson wielded his power through persuasion and it worked–Congressional resistance was vanishingly small.

DC: What do you think of this week’s revelations about PRISM and the Verizon order?

MK: In important ways, I thought that we beat Big Brother when we prevailed in the Cold War. With the indiscriminate collection and analysis of all Verizon users’ telephony metadata (including who we called, where we were, and the inevitable revelation of sensitive information given the answer to the “who” question), we have become what we most fear–executive branch conducting surveillance over ordinary citizens in increasingly intrusive ways. Read More

“Kicking the Tires” is not “Looking Under the Hood”

Celebrated in the tech press only a week ago, the FTC inaction (and non-explanation of its inaction) with respect to search bias concerns is already starting to curdle. The FT ran a front page headline titled “Europe Takes Tough Stance on Google.” Another story included this striking comment from the EU’s competition chief:

Almunia insists that the Federal Trade Commission decision will be “neither an obstacle [for the European Commission] nor an advantage [for Google]. You can also think, well, this European authority, the commission, has received a gift from the American authorities, given that now every result they will get will be much better than the conclusions of the FTC,” he said with playful confidence. “Google people know very well that they need to provide results and real remedies, not arguments or comparisons with what happened on the other side [of the Atlantic].”

In response to allegations of search bias, Google has essentially said, “Trust us.” And at the end of its investigation into the potential bias, the FTC has essentially said the same. One public interest group has already put in a FOIA request for communications between Google and the FTC. Consumer Watchdog has requested a staff report that was reported to have recommended more robust action. Will Google, an advocate of openness in government and the internet generally, hold firm to its professed principles and commend those requests?
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War on Disclosure: Recent Fronts in Health Care

Corporations are fighting disclosure requirements in many fields.  Two notable fronts have recently opened in health care:

1) Fracking has been controversial in part because secret chemicals may end up compromising water supplies.  Pennsylvania has now limited doctors’ ability to speak about their concerns:

Under a new law, doctors in Pennsylvania can access information about chemicals used in natural gas extraction—but they won’t be able to share it with their patients. . . .Pennsylvania law states that companies must disclose the identity and amount of any chemicals used in fracking fluids to any health professional that requests that information in order to diagnosis or treat a patient that may have been exposed to a hazardous chemical. But the provision in the new bill requires those health professionals to sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they will not disclose that information to anyone else—not even the person they’re trying to treat.

Protection of property rights uber alles appears to be the guiding principle here.  If only the doctors wanted to market drugs, maybe their free speech rights would trump the frackers’ trade secrecy privileges.

2) FDA User-Fee Bills recently approved by the House and Senate could seriously limit access to data about drugs.  The House bill is particularly worrisome:

The Food and Drug Administration Reform Act of 2012, H.R.5651 . . . would keep potentially important health and safety information away from the public. Section 812 would, according to a letter to leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee penned by several [advocacy] groups, deny the public access to information relating to drugs obtained by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from any government agency — local, state, federal, or foreign — if that agency has requested that the information be kept confidential.

If that House provision survives the conference committee, there will be troubling implications for US patients and research subjects abroad.

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Goldilocks and Cybersecurity

It may seem strange in a week where Megaupload’s owners were arrested and SOPA / PROTECT IP went under, but cybersecurity is the most important Internet issue out there. Examples? Chinese corporate espionage. Cyberweapons like Stuxnet. Anonymous DDOSing everyone from the Department of Justice to the RIAA. The Net is full of holes, and there are a lot of folks expert in slipping through them.

I argue in a forthcoming paper, Conundrum, that cybersecurity can only be understood as an information problem. Conundrum posits that, if we’re worried about ensuring access to critical information on-line, we should make the Net less efficient – building in redundancy. But for cybersecurity, information is like the porridge in Goldilocks: you can’t have too much or too little. For example, there was recent panic that a water pump burnout in Illinois was the work of cyberterrorists. It turned out that it was actually the work of a contractor for the utility who happened to be vacationing in Russia. (This is what you get for actually answering your pager.)

The “too little” problem can be described via two examples. First, prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government had information about some of the hijackers, but was impeded by lack of information-sharing and by IT systems that made such sharing difficult. Second, denial of service attacks prevent Internet users from reaching sites they seek – a tactic perfected by Anonymous. The problem is the same: needed information is unavailable. I think the solution, as described in Conundrum, is:

increasing the inefficiency with which information is stored. The positive aspects of both access to and alteration of data emphasize the need to ensure that authorized users can reach, and modify, information. This is more likely to occur when users can reach data at multiple locations, both because it increases attackers’ difficulty in blocking their attempts, and because it provides fallback options if a given copy is not available. In short, data should reside in many places.

But there is also the “too much” problem. This is exemplified by the water pump fiasco: after 9/11, the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, began a massive information-sharing effort, such as through Fusion Centers. The difficulty is that the Fusion Centers, and other DHS projects, are simply firehosing information onto companies who constitute “critical infrastructure.” Much of this information is repetitive or simply wrong – as with the water pump report. Bad information can be worse than none at all: it distracts critical infrastructure operators, breeds mistrust, and consumes scarce security resources. The pendulum has swung too far the other way: from undersharing to oversharing. Finding the “just right” solution is impossible; this is a dynamic environment with constantly changing threats. But the government hasn’t yet made the effort to synthesize and analyze information before sounding the alarm. It must, or we will pay the price of either false alarms, or missed ones.

(A side note: I don’t put much stock in which federal agency takes the lead on cybersecurity – there are proposals for the Department of Defense, or the Department of Energy, among others – but why has the Obama administration delegated responsibility to DHS? Having the TSA set Internet policy hardly seems sensible. Beware of Web-based snow globes!)

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

Ackerman and Benkler on the Occupied First Amendment

Slate writer Raymond Vasvari recently observed that, “for every uplifting paragraph” of precedent vindicating rights to protest, there are a “thousand cases bending an abstract right to the prosaic realities of protest.” We may never learn the extent to which Occupy Wall Street protesters were classified “enemies within,” and subject to coordinated intergovernmental suppression. But we can observe, with professors Ackerman and Benkler, that the “irony of free speech” is reaching a breaking point:

Whatever else it accomplishes, Occupy Wall Street is revealing distortions in our current understanding of the First Amendment. In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has protected Wall Street’s constitutional right to pour millions into political campaigns. But as presently construed, the First Amendment isn’t an obstacle when it comes to silencing the Occupiers. . . .

Instead of hiding behind obsolete court decisions, big city mayors must recognize that they are on the constitutional front-line. Michael Bloomberg is failing this test when he keeps Occupiers out of New York’s public parks and tolerates the arrests of dozens of protesters, providing an example for similar actions in Boston, Denver, and San Diego. In contrast, Antonio Villaraigoso is showing that leadership on behalf of the First Amendment is well within the realm of the politically possible. Los Angeles has not only avoided arrests, but seems to be expanding available public space as the protest swells. Similarly, the U.S. Parks police are on the right track in giving the demonstrators a four month extension on Freedom Plaza.

How to explain Mayor Bloomberg’s deviance from constitutional ideals? Maybe he’s one of the worried wealthy, realizing that he can only afford another 170 of his trademark $100 million dollar political campaigns with his fortune of $17 billion. Ensconced in an alternate reality of privilege, Bloomberg retails stories of struggling and put-upon banks. It is his very plutocratic disconnection from the daily life of his subjects that makes an extraordinary protest like OWS necessary.
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