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Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

The costly matter of truth-telling

Truth, it is said, is the first casualty of war, and we have certainly seen that maxim verified repeatedly in the past six years.

From the initial claims of WMD to the foolish presidential insistence that we need to “stay the course,” which, he said in a depressingly redundant explanation, “means, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” we have become accustomed to a certain suspension of reality in the discussion of war and its accompanying issues.

So we celebrate those who continue to pursue truth in the face of state opposition, whether here or abroad, and we acknowledge the price some pay for doing that work.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, the same one into whose soul our own president once peered, has become the third deadliest country for journalists, after Iraq and Algeria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Putin has taken the reforms of post-Soviet-era Russia and turned them on their heads, functioning more like the former KGB officer he once was than a head of state. Dissenters, whether reformers of institutions or crusading reporters printing embarrassing truths, don’t last long in Russia.

Thirteen journalists have been killed since Putin took office. The most recent assassination of a journalist occurred Oct. 7 when Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her apartment building. Politkovskaya, a critic of Putin and Russian policies in Chechnya, was finishing a story about torture in Chechnya at the time of her killing. The story ran in Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which she worked, days after she was killed.

All of those who wrote about her following her death said the 48-year-old mother of two understood the risks of her investigative work. Most praised her courage. One young Russian who showed up to pay his respects said, “She wasn’t afraid to tell the truth and it cost her her life. ... If only there were more Russians who cared as much as she did.”

The situation, of course, is not nearly so dire in the United States, but pursuing the truth can still exact a stiff cost, as Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift found out. He’s the Navy lawyer who successfully challenged the legality of the military commissions concocted by the Bush administration for dealing with suspected terrorists. Swift was assigned to represent Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who admitted to working as Osama bin Laden’s $200-a-month driver but denied ever joining al-Qaeda or fighting as a part of the terrorist group. He was captured along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border reportedly fleeing the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The expectation of the administration was that Swift would convince his client to plead guilty. But the Navy lawyer concluded for himself that the tribunals were unconstitutional and, following his conscience, defended his client right up to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled for Hamdan and against the administration, saying the tribunals violated not only U.S. law but also the Geneva Conventions.

It is worth noting here that new legislation sought by the administration in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and recently approved by Congress creates a system of justice for trying detainees that is replete with many of the same elements ruled unconstitutional last June. The relevance here is that it will take more courageous military attorneys to post challenges to the new system, a prospect made dimmer by the manner in which Swift was treated.

Swift, named one of the country’s top 100 lawyers by The National Law Journal, learned a few weeks after the Supreme Court decision that he had been passed over by the Pentagon for promotion. Consequently, under the Navy’s “up or out” promotion system, Swift is out and will retire in March or April after nearly 20 years in the service.

Swift told reporters, “It was a pleasure to serve.” He added, “All I ever wanted was to make a difference -- and in that sense I think my career and personal satisfaction had been beyond my dreams.” Perhaps, but the way he was treated sends a chilling alarm to those who may be called upon in the future to defend detainees.

Finally, the most recent news about journalists in Iraq was the killing of 11 staff at a television station in Baghdad Oct. 12. According to Reporters Without Borders, the shootings brought to 109 the number of Iraqi and foreign journalists and media assistants who have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

According to officials of the small station that had not yet begun broadcasting, most of the staff were staying at the station overnight and most of those were killed in their beds.

The assault was a grim reminder of how often Iraq extracts a price from those who try to report what’s going on. It was a reminder, too, that without journalists, who sometimes put themselves at great risk for the sake of the story, we might be left hostage to the spin that the United States is making progress, that Iraqi democracy is doing well and that all we need do is stay the course until the job is finished.

Without the working press we might not be aware of the differences that exist among generals and other military figures on our current strategy, and we might not know that today in Baghdad, attacks are up, the number of dead and wounded is climbing, and that sectarian violence and death squads are killing an estimated 100 people a day.

Without Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian people might believe that everything is fine in Chechnya.

And without Lt. Cmdr. Swift, we in the United States would not have been made aware of the distressing violations of some of the country’s fundamental legal principles.

We owe a great debt to those who place everything on the line in telling the truth and acting with great courage on their convictions.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

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