Lt. Watada prosecutors surrender on journalist subpoenas


1-31-07, 9:02 am

Lt. Watada prosecutors surrender on journalist subpoenas Charges for speaking to the press dropped

Army prosecutors of Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first military officer to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq, surrendered today on two charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”   These two charges—each of which carried a one year possible prison sentence—were based on interviews Lt. Watada held with independent journalist Sarah Olson and Greg Kakesako of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In dropping these charges, and dismissing the subpoenas of these journalists, the Army likely realized that it had little to gain from a building showdown with the media.

With these two charges dropped, Lt. Watada legally acknowledged, or “stipulated,” that he did in fact make all of the statements he had been charged with.

Independent journalist led campaign to oppose subpoenas

Oakland-based independent journalist Sarah Olson was the first journalist to interview Lt. Watada. When she learned that the military intended to subpoena her to testify against her source in order to prosecute a dissenting opinion, she let her objections be know.

“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?” wrote Sarah Olson in a widely published op-ed.

Sarah Olson, on assignment for the CBC, interviews war resister Pablo Paredes in LA, March 2006. Photo by Yasemin Kasim.

In recent weeks the National Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists, PEN American Center, Military Reporters and Editors, and individuals such as legendary talk-show host Phil Donahue, authors Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg have rallied to back her objections. Thousands of reporters, authors, and concerned individuals signed a petition calling on the Army to “dismiss the subpoena of journalist Sarah Olson.”

Sarah Olson learned that she will not have to make a choice between six months imprisonment on the order of a military judge for contempt of court, and compromising what she stands for as a journalist.

“This should be seen as a victory for the rights of journalists in the U.S. to gather and disseminate news free from government intervention, and for the rights of individuals to express personal, political opinions to journalists without fear of retribution or censure. I am glad the growing number of dissenting voices within the military will retain their rights to speak with reporters. But I note with concern that Lt. Watada still faces prosecution for exercising his First Amendment rights during public presentations,” noted Sarah Olson today.

Lt. Watada acknowledges political statements

In exchange for these two charged being dropped, Lt. Watada legally acknowledged (or “stipulated”) that he did in fact make all of the statements he had been charged with. 

Lt. Watada’s lawyer, Eric Seitz of Honolulu, said today, “From the beginning, the Army has been heavy handed about controlling the media, and going after Lt. Watada for his speech. The Army shouldn’t have charged these in the first place. We were willing to stipulate to these statements because he did make them, and he had the right to do so. Nor did we want to see journalists face prison by the Army.”

Two remaining speech crimes of “conduct unbecoming” remain.

One charge for to hundreds of military veterans at last year’s national Veterans for Peace convention held in Seattle. Specifically, the Army took offense to this section:

“Today, I speak with you about a radical idea. It is one born from the very concept of the American soldier (or service member). It became instrumental in ending the Vietnam War - but it has been long since forgotten. The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.”

The second charge covers Lt. Watada’s pre-recorded video statement shown at a Tacoma, Washington press conference on June 7, 2006. This was the first time Lt. Watada publicly expressed his opposition to the Iraq War.

As these statements where video taped, and are currently widely available via, and other websites, Lt. Watada’s stipulation that he made these statements is of little consequence. During Lt. Watada’s January 4 pre-trial hearing, it was noted that a crime lab had already authenticated the recording of his Seattle speech.

“There is nothing wrong with the statements Lt. Watada made. There is simply no offense,” stated attorney Eric Seitz to military judge Lieutenant Colonel John Head in his opening remarks during last month’s hearing. “Attempting to prosecute these types of statements raise significant constitutional problems.”

“Lt. Watada’s speech was offensive to the military,” and as such was illegal, retorted Army prosecutor Captain Daniel Kuecker.

Anti-war activists remain under subpoena

Although the military has dismissed the subpoenas of journalists, Veterans for Peace Seattle Chapter organizers Tom Brookhart and Gerri Haynes, and Olympia-based anti-war organizer Phan Nguyen remain under order to testify against Lt. Watada.

Tom Brookhart and Gerri Haynes came to the attention of Army prosecutors for their role in organizing the VFP National Convention in August. Phan Nguyen, a member of the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, was the moderator of a number of press conferences and rallies this summer regarding Lt. Watada and the support his stand against illegal war has generated.

With Lt. Watada now formally acknowledging the remaining statements in question, the only rational the Army could now have for dragging these prominent anti-war organizers into a military court is to intimidate the peace movement.

In fact, when Army prosecutor Captain Kuecker first contacted Phan Nguyen in December all of his questions focused on the behind the scenes workings of the regional anti-war movement. “Kuecker basically demanded that I name the names of any key organizers that had anything to do with the public support campaign created to support Lt. Watada,” explained Nguyen. “They are clearly on a political fishing expedition. Unless we fight back, this could have a chilling effect on anti-war organizing at a time when we have to step up to end the war.”

Amid protest, February 5 court martial

Lt. Watada supporters in Seattle anti-war march 1/27/07 Photo by Lori Hurlebaus

Lt. Watada’s court martial is scheduled to begin Monday, February 5 at Fort Lewis, Washington. He still faces a charge of missing movement, and two remaining charges of “conduct unbecoming” for public statements critical of President Bush and the Iraq occupation war. A series of events are planned for the Fort Lewis to “stand with Lt. Watada,” including an all day vigil and two rallies outside of Fort Lewis on February 5.

  From a report by Courage to Resist organizer Jeff Paterson.