Monday, January 19, 2004

Don’t Shut Up

One way to get the attention of the public is to try to hush something up. And some people take great risks to get the truth out. For example:

An act of secrecy by a Miami judge last year, ”super-sealing” a lawsuit by a South Florida man detained after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks so that no trace of his case appeared in any public record, has had the opposite of the intended effect.

Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel, a one-time country veterinarian who more recently waited tables in Delray Beach, is fast becoming known in civil libertarian circles. His challenge to government secrecy has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal agents detained Bellahouel in October 2001 and held him for five months on the theory that he might have served food to hijackers and maybe even went to a movie theater with one.

What began as a petition for his release has evolved into a battle over the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Bellahouel, 34, alleges that a series of federal judges sealed the entire case against him without giving any reason, without allowing him or anyone else a chance to challenge the action.

All of which places Bellahouel, an unassuming immigrant living with his wife, stepdaughter and mother-in-law in Deerfield Beach, at the center of a legal storm.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his prosecutors have warned that releasing even the names of post-Sept. 11 detainees could undermine national security. The Supreme Court last week refused to hear an appeal by civil liberties groups, which contend that such basic information should be public.

There’s also this case, reported here in a NY Times Op-Ed column by Bob Herbert:

Katharine Gun has a much better grasp of the true spirit of democracy than Tony Blair. So, naturally, it’s Katharine Gun who’s being punished.

Ms. Gun, 29, was working at Britain’s top-secret Government Communications Headquarters last year when she learned of an American plan to spy on at least a half-dozen U.N. delegations as part of the U.S. effort to win Security Council support for an invasion of Iraq.

The plans, which included e-mail surveillance and taps on home and office telephones, was outlined in a highly classified National Security Agency memo. The agency, which was seeking British assistance in the project, was interested in “the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals.”

Countries specifically targeted were Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan. The primary goal was a Security Council resolution that would give the U.S. and Britain the go-ahead for the war.

Ms. Gun felt passionately that an invasion of Iraq was wrong — morally wrong and illegal. In a move that deeply embarrassed the American and British governments, the memo was leaked to The London Observer.

Which landed Ms. Gun in huge trouble. She has not denied that she was involved in the leak.

There is no equivalent in Britain to America’s First Amendment protections. Individuals like Ms. Gun are at the mercy of the Official Secrets Act, which can result in severe — in some cases, draconian — penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of information by intelligence or security agency employees.

Ms. Gun was fired from her job as a translator and arrested for violating the act. If convicted, she will face up to two years in prison.

There’s a long tradition in both American and British history of speaking out against injustice regardless of the consequences. Remember Daniel Ellsberg?