Photo: Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
FD Editor’s Note: When I first read this, I couldn’t believe it was about the US. It sounds more like some fascist country, maybe N. Korea, doesn’t it? Check it out, it’s one of the Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism. It seems that the US fits right in!
by MATT APUZZO
With Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. facing a deadline over whether to force a reporter for The New York Times to testify in a leak trial, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, has recommended that Mr. Holder approve a subpoena for another journalist, a reporter for CBS News.
Mr. Bharara wants to force Richard Bonin, a longtime producer for “60 Minutes,” to testify next month at a terrorism trial over bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998. One of the two defendants, Khaled al-Fawwaz, is accused of running Al Qaeda’s media office in London. Prosecutors want Mr. Bonin to discuss his dealings with the group’s media office in an unsuccessful effort to interview Osama bin Laden in 1998, officials and others briefed on the case said.
Mr. Holder faces a court-imposed deadline of Tuesday to decide whether to force James Risen, a reporter for The Times, to testify in the leak trial of a former C.I.A. officer. Mr. Risen has said he will not testify, exposing himself to potential jail time for obstruction. Mr. Holder has said he will not send a reporter to jail, but abandoning the subpoena would undermine his prosecutors, who say they need Mr. Risen’s testimony to win their case.
The CBS matter does not involve a leak investigation or confidential sources. Prosecutors want Mr. Bonin to testify about logistical conversations he had with Mr. Fawwaz to set up an interview with Bin Laden. The Justice Department declined to comment on the matter.
Coordinated bombings at two United States Embassies in Africa in 1998 pushed Al Qaeda into the headlines. Bin Laden issued a declaration of war against the United States as early as 1996, and several journalists tried to interview him for reports on the growing terrorist threat. Mr. Bonin’s interview, however, never materialized.
“Part of my job as a reporter is to inform the American public about those who want to do us harm,” Mr. Bonin said in an interview. “To turn me into a witness for the government will make it difficult for me to do my job in the future and increase the substantial risks already faced by every reporter in the Mideast today.”
Mr. Holder approved a subpoena for Mr. Bonin weeks ago, people briefed on the case said, but did so believing that prosecutors in Manhattan had worked out an arrangement in which Mr. Bonin would agree to testify. When it became clear that Mr. Bonin intended to challenge a subpoena, he rescinded his approval. Mr. Bharara’s office still wants the subpoena approved, but Mr. Holder is reviewing it.
Mr. Bonin said he had hired — at the network’s expense — the media lawyer David A. Schulz to object to a subpoena. Mr. Schulz said a reporter’s testimony about one conversation 16 years ago was unnecessary in a case in which the government has indicated that it has overwhelming evidence.
“The limited value of the testimony cannot justify the dramatic impact on Mr. Bonin’s ability to do his job, and on the increased risk to other journalists that will result by forcing a reporter to testify in this prosecution about things learned solely in the course of news gathering,” Mr. Schulz said.
Mr. Fawwaz, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, was indicted on charges including conspiracy to murder in connection with the Africa bombings, which killed more than 200 people. Prosecutors say he set up Bin Laden’s media office in London, helped recruit Qaeda trainees, and provided Bin Laden with a satellite phone.
His co-defendant is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who is more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Libi. United States commandos captured him in Tripoli, Libya, last year. He spent a week in military custody aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean before being arraigned in federal court.
Mr. Bonin is an Emmy-winning producer and an author of a book about Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile who helped push the United States to war. In October, working with the CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl, he produced a “60 Minutes” segment titled “The War on Leaks,” which described Mr. Risen’s lengthy subpoena fight.
While Mr. Bonin’s potential subpoena does not involve a leak investigation, it comes after a string of subpoenas to journalists as part of the Obama administration’s crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to reporters without the blessing of the administration. The government has brought criminal charges in eight leak cases, compared with three under all previous administrations. Mr. Holder now says he thinks that effort has gone too far at times.
In other instances, the Justice Department subpoenaed phone records for reporters at The Associated Press and tried to force Mike Levine, then a reporter at Fox News, to testify before a grand jury, before dropping the matter.