The Obama Administration's War on the Press Could Become a Touch More Literal

Pentagon manual calls for potentially treating journalists like 'unprivileged belligerents.'


Something about creating a monster …
Credit: KAZVorpal / photo on flickr

It's well documented that President Barack Obama's administration has been brutal in targeting whistleblowers who leak information to the press. The Department of Justice has spied on the Associated Press and Fox News to track down sources of information. It has slid down the World Press Freedom Index to 49th place, lower than several African and South American countries.

Now a new Pentagon document, a Law of War Manual, states that journalists can be treated like "unprivileged belligerents," which is apparently the new term for "unlawful combatants," which some may recall was the new term for "suspected terrorists."

According to some media coverage of the manual, military leaders are insisting they're not declaring that journalists are the enemy. Rather they're pointing out that journalists just might be the actual enemy, as in terrorists, spies, and propagandists posing as journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, however, is concerned that the vagueness of the manual will give clearance to the military to detain and harass journalists with very little evidence that they're doing anything but honest reporting:

This broad and poorly defined category gives U.S. military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial. The Obama administration's Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the War on Terror and codified them to formally govern the way U.S. military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.

The manual's impact overseas, especially in the short run, may be even worse. The language used to justify treating journalists as "unprivileged belligerents" comes at a time when international law for conflict is being flouted by armed groups–including government, militia, and insurgent forces–from Ukraine and Iraq to Nigeria and the Congo–and during a time in which CPJ has documented record numbers of journalists being imprisoned and killed. At a time when international leadership on human rights and press freedom is most needed, the Pentagon has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar.

And the bar is apparently already pretty low:

The U.S. military has taken action against journalists before. Bilal Hussein, whose photo of insurgents firing on U.S. soldiers in Fallujah in 2004 helped earn Associated Press photographers, including Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize, was detained by Marines in 2006 and held for two years. The U.S. military never provided evidence or an explanation for the detention of the AP photographer, who was presented with CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2008.

Sami al-Haj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman, was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. military forces accused the Sudanese cameraman of being a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures, but never provided evidence to support the claims, CPJ found in its 2006 report "Sami al-Haj: The Enemy?" Al-Haj, who is now is head of the human rights and public liberties department at Al-Jazeera, was held for six years at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Prior to releasing him, U.S. military officials tried to compel al-Haj to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release, his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, told CPJ and media outlets.

The New York Times' Editorial Board came out swinging against this new manual this week:

The manual's argument that some reporting activities could be construed as taking part in hostilities is ludicrous. That vaguely-worded standard could be abused by military officers to censor or even target journalists.

Equally bizarre is the document's suggestion that reporters covering wars should operate only with the permission of "relevant authorities" or risk being regarded as spies. To cover recent wars, including the civil war in Libya in 2011 and the war in Syria, reporters have had to sneak across borders, at great personal risk, to gather information. For the Pentagon to conflate espionage with journalism feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments. Egypt, for instance, has tried to discredit the work of Western journalists by falsely insinuating that many of them are spies.

Even more disturbing is the document's broad assertion that journalists' work may need to be censored lest it reveal sensitive information to the enemy. This unqualified statement seems to contravene American constitutional and case law, and offers other countries that routinely censor the press a handy reference point.

The manual has an odd disclaimer that it may not necessarily reflect the views of the "government as a whole." But at this point, it should hardly be a surprise if it did.

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  1. Rather they’re pointing out that journalists just might be the actual enemy, as in terrorists, spies, and propagandists posing as journalists.

    I guess we can look forward to a SWAT raid on MSNBC headquarters.

  2. Don’t worry, real journalists just reblog White House press releases. No one needs to worry.

  3. Ahem.

    Barry is a jerk.

    Transparent my ass.

  4. It never fucking ends with this bastard.

  5. IIRC, just before 9/11, and Al Quaeda assassin disguised himself as a journalist and killed a Northern Alliance leader in Afghanistan.

    1. -1 Ahmad Shah Masood

      (three guys, IIRC, two “cameramen” and a “reporter” supposedly from a European network – bomb in the “camera”).

  6. It’s interesting that the MSM hasn’t made a big deal out of this. Do they benefit? Or are they merely reluctant to point out the increasing flaws in the Obama administration which they have supported for too many years?

    1. You mean like how “The New York Times’ Editorial Board came out swinging against this new manual this week”?

      1. Good for them. But where are the others? I expected this to be a big deal for journalists everywhere. It seems that they choose their battles on lines not so much related to journalism, but to something else–maybe politics?

  7. As much as I hate the current administration, this is a problem endemic to the military and it’s overabundance of military brass with nothing better to do all day than think up ways to prevent being embarrassed.

    1. Although you are correct, Obama is partly to blame since he ran on an “end the Iraq War” agenda and then did the exact opposite.

      Manuals like this are proof that the military is wasting 50% of its budget. Cut the military budget in half and this shit stops. We all knew the GOP didn’t have the balls, and most Dems suspected Hilary as being as pro-war as they come, but for Obama to run as a counter to the status quo and then become the biggest supporter of it makes him one of the worst offenders.

  8. What with social media, do we even need war correspondents anymore? Can’t we just detain and harass war zone tweeters?

  9. “U.S. military officials tried to compel al-Haj to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release”

    That is really fucking balsy.

    1. Which gets us to the reason he was detained in the first place.

  10. That smarmy little prick who penned that noxious drek on free speech in that magazine some say is great should be developing a pleasurable puddle of prick juice in his drawers about now with this news.

    On an observation not a single fucking person should ever care a whit about: baby turkeys are very cute. Have 5 wild ones running around the back wasteland right now with their mama and I hate to admit my heart is bleeding kitten paws and rainbow-colored mini marshmallows.

    1. Is everything OK? You seem different.

      1. It’s just Tuesday, babe.

      2. His regular guy is out of town and the new guy cuts his stuff with more baking soda?

    2. Someone uploaded an alternate dictionary into the AI this morning. Perhaps a few alternate grammar rules as well.

  11. “The Obama administration’s Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the War on Terror and codified them…”

    Get that? It is Bush’s fault.

    At no time, ever, was this prick not obviously what he is: banana republic dictator material. As usual he said what he was going to do (change the way the news is reported) and the MSM stuck their fingers in their ears and started chanting ‘lalalalala’. Suck it up motherfuckers, you supported this guy.

    Hey, anyone who voted for this guy…fuck you. Fuck you very much.

  12. “unprivileged belligerents,” which is apparently the new term for “unlawful combatants,”

    Woah, woah, woah.

    That is a very serious charge (from Reason or their source) so they had better back it up. In international law, an Unlawful Combatant is a person who is refusing to follow the rules of war. International treaties state that Unlawful Combatants are not protected by articles of war (as a lawful combatant would be), and are subject to things like confinement for indeterminate periods and up to and including execution.

    Determining someone to be an Unlawful Combatant requires some sort of due process (like a tribunal). In practice, most unlawful combatants are shot in the battlefield and any investigation after the fact that determines they were unlawful (for example, hiding among civilians or in protected buildings like schools, churches or hospitals) puts responsibility for collateral damage on those combatants.

    Based on this, I find it HIGHLY unlikely that the military has changed its policy to treat Reporters the same as unlawful combatants. Unprivileged Belligerent likely means they do not have unrestricted access to the battlefield (as a privileged person would be) and that they are not to be considered safe OR a part of the action (as a combatant would be).

    I’m not saying this new policy is good. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction. But to say the military will treat reporters the same as an Al Qaeda agent seems a stretch.

    1. I used to think that saying the military endorsed torture seemed a bit of a stretch.

    2. I think they are reasoning backwards here:

      “Holy crap, but I’d like to lock that smarmy photog up. You just know he’s been taking pix for the hajjis.”

      “Hmm. You know the only way we could do that is if he’s an unprivileged belligerent.”

      “You don’t say . . . .”

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