BROOKE GLADSTONE: Plugging leaks is becoming a priority in every part of the executive branch. Earlier the State Department attracted a lot of press when it took an unusual action to maintain secrecy. After a press conference Friday before last a National Review reporter claiming to be holding a confidential document was prevented from leaving with it by armed security guards. That reporter did eventually get out of the building, and he joins us now. Joel Mowbray, welcome to On the Media.
JOEL MOWBRAY: Well glad to be here. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now it's safe to say that you weren't the most loved journalist at the State Department even before this incident. Your articles have been highly critical of State Department policy, specifically with regard to visas in Saudi Arabia.
JOEL MOWBRAY: Well what I've found over the course of several months, it was very disturbing, what I learned, and that was about a program called Visa Express in Saudi Arabia which is how 3 of the September 11th hijackers got in the country, even though they had never gone to a consulate or an embassy to get a visa. They submitted their applications to a travel agent, and we just found out now that the Inspector General had released numbers to Congress showing that in the first 3 months that Visa Express was in operation -- that's only from June 1st until 9/11 -- 97 percent of Saudi nationals who were issued visas got in without an interview at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Okay, so let's take us back to that fateful Friday you presented Press Secretary Richard Boucher [sp?] with a question which he didn't like at all.
JOEL MOWBRAY: What happened was there had been this cable that had been sent by the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia. The subject line says it all: Request for Guidance on Termination of Visa Express -- in short, he wanted to end the program. Mr. Boucher brought up the contents of the cable. He said that earlier this week the ambassador had requested more resources, and so I said well specifically he asked for more resources to end the program formerly known as Visa Express and to interview all applicants, and he succinctly said, well no. And at that point I was a little frustrated because I had read through the entire cable, and I said [LAUGHS] well I have the cable.
MAN: Well I've read the cable too and I think if you read it carefully, even though it's confidential, if you happen to have it, you'll find that he's asking for resources, he's asking for consular people to go out there and that's what we're talking to him about. I do have to point out, sir, that you've written a lot of things and said a lot of things recently.
JOEL MOWBRAY: About 10 minutes later I was trying to leave, and he and I in the midst of-- in the middle of that had acrimonious exchange -- the press briefing was still going on, but I had to leave. So I walked out into the hallway, and there was a woman standing there with 4 armed guards. And I'm thinking this is because I'm relatively new to the building -- she wanted me to meet the security guards who were armed and in uniform so that they wouldn't give me a hard time the next time I come to the building. So I'm shaking their hands like I'm at a cocktail party, and I get ready to go and I say well if you excuse me, I have to leave. And she says that's not possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So were you actually detained? The State Department won't go on the air with us, but officials there reportedly-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JOEL MOWBRAY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- aren't convinced that you were.
JOEL MOWBRAY:Initially they said I wasn't detained. And then later they admitted I was detained, but at one point the plainclothes detective as part of the Diplomatic Security Service, he comes up to me -- I was making several calls on my cell phone to my lawyers, to National Review and to others-- and he said sir, you're blowing this way out of proportion! I said well am I being detained? Part of the notice here -- when you go to Georgetown Law and watch Law and Order every week, [LAUGHTER] you know you need to ask these questions. He said no. I said okay, I'm leaving. And he immediately steps right in front of me, and he says now you're being detained.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Oops. Now Joel, do you actually think there was a plot to harass you because of your reporting or do you think that the Diplomatic Security Service was just following order to keep all classified documents from leaving the building and that no one in Security reads your articles, and it could be a right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing situation.
JOEL MOWBRAY: They clearly know who I am -- particularly those people within the executive and administrative ranks of the Diplomatic Security Service and the people who make the decisions about sending people to detain others, etc. And the way in which I was detained too, I would find questionable, having 4 armed guards on me and another 4 armed guards at the exit. I'm not a big guy! I mean that's 8 [LAUGHS] guards to keep me from leaving the State Department.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Tell me what you know about the State Department's new efforts to plug leaks and track down whistleblowers. What have your leaking sources been telling you about what they can't do any more?
JOEL MOWBRAY: In the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the least, and I think they may try to implement this department-wide at State, it used to be that unclassified cables in particular and even confidential cables, that these would be printed out, just generally - with no one's name on it - nobody knowing who is actually seeing exactly what - and they would pass it around - people would take a look at it, and that, that was a nice way to spread information so you wouldn't have to line up at the central terminals. Well now, if you are someone in the State Department, if you're an employee, you have to go to a central server to log in to read the cables. You cannot have them printed out. And as a result, the State Department now knows what documents people are reading, what they're downloading and when.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So things are a lot less convenient at State. Do you think it really helps plugging the leaks?
JOEL MOWBRAY:In fact I think it, it does just the opposite. I've had a number of people since Friday who have contacted me with information. I'm at the [LAUGHS] point now where I, I think I need an intern or something to [LAUGHTER] track down information for me cause I have so much of it coming in!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thanks a lot.
JOEL MOWBRAY: Thank you for having me. I'm really glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joel Mowbray is a contributing editor to National Review on line.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, why the Brits aren't buying digital radio and copyright beware...unless you live in China.