Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Secrecy and Free Speech

On the 22nd of September, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the house of Maj Gen VK Singh, a retired RAW agent and his publishing agency for publishing his book, India's External Intelligence : Secrets of the RAW Revealed. The retired general has now been booked for violation of the Official Secret's Act. (See news clip)

The book spoke about alleged political interference and corruption in the intelligence agency, including claims about the purchase of sub-standard telecom equipment meant for VVIP security. The book claimed there were severe lapses on part of the government that facilitated the escape of senior RAW official Rabinder Singh, who is believed to have fled to the US.

The incident raised various questions about the boundaries of free speech in this Country. Infact, I just remembered reading a similar case in Alan Dershowitz's book, THE BEST DEFENSE. I read about an CIA Agent named Frank Snepp who published a book exposing the fallacies in Vietnam for which he was booked by the US Government. Dersh was to defend him in the case. The case is very very similar to the one that's come up in out Country. Unfortunately in this case, the US Supreme Court in US v. Snepp ruled against Snepp and secrecy has not become an anti-thesis to free speech there. I's afraid that if this case goes to Court then the Indian Supreme Court would do something like the same which would set a bad precedent in regard to cases of free speech and the right to privacy.

The following is a narrative given in Frank Snepp's site,

The narrative...

Among the last CIA agents to be airlifted from Saigon during the closing moments of the war, Frank Snepp returned to CIA headquarters in the summer of 1975 haunted by the loss of his Vietnamese son and lover—and determined to force his colleagues to assist other Vietnamese left behind. But this was the Season of the Reckoning with the CIA under investigation by Congress and unwilling to admit any more transgressions, least of all its final ones in Vietnam. So when Snepp attempted to prompt an internal after-action report to generate support for the abandoned, his colleagues resisted and reviled him, and finally hounded him out of the Agency in an effort to keep a lid on the truth. But Snepp would not be cowed, and for the next eighteen months, with the help of brave friends who risked both career and welfare for him, he carefully and discreetly assembled the report the CIA didn’t want, even as former fellow agents pursued him like a fugitive on the run, attempting to intimidate him into silence.

His expose, "Decent Interval", was published by Random House in total secrecy—the first American book to be brought out this way. But the firestorm of publicity it ignited, including a 60 Minutes exclusive and front-page coverage in The New York Times, drove the CIA and the White House to launch a campaign of retaliation unparalleled in the annals of American law.

While acknowledging that Snepp’s book had had compromised no secrets, the government’s lawyers insisted that its unauthorized publication alone had “irreparably harmed” the nation’s security by creating an impression of a breakdown in CIA internal discipline that could frighten off intelligence sources abroad. They also claimed that it violated an invisible trust and a secrecy agreement Snepp had signed with the Agency, and demanded, as penalty, that he be gagged for life and deprived of all his “ill-gotten gains,” every cent he had earned from his act of “faithlessness.”

They offered no proof to support their allegations of harm, ignored inconsistencies in the six secrecy agreements Snepp had signed, and glossed over the fact that other ex-agents, friendlier to the CIA, had routinely been allowed to publish unapproved books and articles without protest or censure. Even so, a scandalously prejudiced Federal judge succumbed to the CIA’s extravagant national security claims and ruled against Snepp at every turn, reducing him to an American version of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, the Frenchman ruthlessly martyred for his beliefs.

Along the way an outraged U.S. Senator took further vengeance on the ex-agent-turned-author by blocking his father’s appointment to the federal bench, thus effectively stalling his judicial career and forever souring his relations with his son.

But young Snepp’s ordeal wasn’t over. Months later, in late February 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court took up his case on appeal—and used it to savage both the defendant and the First Amendment.

While upholding the most draconian of the earlier rulings against Snepp—a lifetime gag and confiscation of every penny he’d made from "Decent Interval"—the Court lowered the standard by which the government can gag you or any other American in the name of national security. With its landmark ruling in The United States v. Snepp, the nation’s highest tribunal made it possible for the CIA or any other government agency to silence critics simply by convincing a court that they’re imperiling the “appearance” of airtight official secrecy, whatever that means.

And don’t suppose that genuine national security interests need be at stake. Remember: Frank Snepp was persecuted, prosecuted, gagged and wrecked financially even though the CIA conceded in court that nothing he had made public exposed any official secrets.

Reverberations from the ruling quickly spread through the government and private industry and continue down to the present. Successive presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have used it to justify placing millions of government workers, from FBI agents to park rangers, under censorship rules that prevent them from writing even novels without official approval. The Reagan administration invoked it to limit the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. The Bush administration used it to discourage government workers from blowing the whistle on bureaucratic waste and abuse, claiming that any such disclosure violates an implicit obligation of trust. The Clinton White House relied on the Snepp to try to squelch an early expose of the president’s romantic peccadilloes and to keep criticism of its mid-east policies out of print. The cigarette maker, Brown & Williamson, turned Snepp against whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and CBS’ 60 Minutes to discourage them from airing the firm’s dirty secrets.

“An unprecedented vote for censorship” is how The Los Angeles Times described the ruling against Snepp. “No court decision in our history,” observed columnist Nat Hentoff, “has so imperiled whistleblowers and thereby the ability of all citizens to find out about rampant ineptitude.”

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