BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Another week, another round of government officials raising their right hands. Between the televised hearings on Iraqi prisoner abuse and the televised hearings on the 9/11 Commission, it's easy to feel that we're privy to history in the making. But many more hearings happen behind closed doors. For example, in a closed session with the 9/11 Commission back in February, a former FBI translator named Sibel Edmonds described intelligence reports that crossed her desk in the summer of 2001. She later told the Independent of London that those reports included warnings that Al Qaeda planned to fly hijacked airplanes into U.S. skyscrapers and included a general time frame for the planned attack. Her allegations were immediately picked up by news outlets around the world, but hardly at all here in the U.S., and the Justice Department is doing its best to keep it that way. It recently blocked Edmonds from testifying in a lawsuit brought by families of 9/11 victims, and this week it took the rare step of retroactively classifying information about her given to Congress almost two years ago. As of Friday, Edmonds' allegations had yet to appear in the Washington Post, but they did appear in the Post's online edition, in a column by Jefferson Morley. Jeff, welcome to the show.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: This past Thursday, the New York Times made its first mention of Sibel Edmonds' name. That story was headlined: Material Given to Congress in 2002 Is Now Classified. Did you see that piece?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yes, I did.
BOB GARFIELD: Did it strike you as weird, Jeff, that the New York Times wrote a story about an extraordinary case of the government trying to retroactively classify something that was already a part of the Congressional Record, and yet the story about it never really discloses the substance of the allegations that the government is trying to quash.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: It is weird. The problem is that there's a gag order on, and it works. I mean the government has a gag order on her, so a lot of things she cannot talk about, and so it's harder for reporters to write about. That's the first part of why the full story isn't being aired in the press yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Aired in the press in the United States. The press in Europe seems to have felt unchastened by the uncertainties attached to a story where the primary source is gagged by the government. Why is that?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Everywhere but in the United States, people jumped on the story thinking, hey, this could be important. It was well-covered in Latin America. In Europe, the Scotsman, a generally conservative paper, gave prominent play to Edmonds' charges. Said that her allegations starkly contradicted the administration's claims. U.S. News organizations and especially Washington reporters - for something with the political import of what she's saying - in order to sell the story in a newsroom, you need high level sources to say yes, you know, that's true. But nobody high up in the FBI is going to back it up at this point; it's nothing but trouble, and the 9/11 Commission members and the Senate staffers who talked about this story have been told not to talk about it. So, that's where the gag order is working. Washington correspondents are going to back away. Probably more so than foreign correspondents.
BOB GARFIELD:Jeff, I'm sure many of our listeners will see this episode as just yet another smoking gun -- proof that the craven corporate-owned U.S. media are once again demonstrating they are lapdogs to The Man. Is that really what's going on here?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: I get a little impatient with people whose first instinct is to blame the press. It's a complicated and sensitive story, and we haven't seen the original documentation. But I think reporters are being excessively deferential to the executive branch, and it seems to me it's past the point where the executive branch gets the benefit of the doubt on a story like this. I'm hoping that people will begin to see that retroactive de-classification is smoke. Okay? And where there's smoke, there may be fire. Now, there's a third thing which, which is mitigating for journalists too, which is we're in information overload about 9/11 stories. We have the commission hearings, we have Richard Clarke, and so I think for some reporters, you know, they feel too busy to get to it -- there's too much going on.
BOB GARFIELD:Although, we're talking about advance intelligence that hijacked airplanes were going to hit the World Trade Center. This is not the kind of thing that people would just push to the bottom of their pile. That would be a, a blockbuster story, if corroborated.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now you work at Washington Post dot com -- you have worked at the Washington Post - the print edition - how would you go about writing a story given the institutional caution of major news organizations that could adequately get Sibel Edmonds' charges out there without practicing bad journalism?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: I think the way the story needs to be covered is around the legal action that's ongoing right now, because that's something that is not an allegation. The retroactive de-classification is remarkable; the case law around these type of things is quite explicit. Under the Freedom of Information Act, for example, a de-classified document cannot be re-classified - ever, for any reason. But I think that a little more transparency about what her allegations are and the conditions that she's under as far as the gag order -- I mean spelling that out is imperative. It doesn't have to be the lead of the story, but it should be in the story somewhere. Not to say that it's necessarily true or not, but to say that these allegations have been made by a serious person who was in the position to know sensitive information; the government has acknowledged that by putting a gag order on her. And so therefore, it should be pursued. And hopefully it will be pursued.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well Jeff, thanks very much.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Washington Post dot com.