Secret Service controls journalists’ access to US presidential campaign

Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016.  - M. Scott Brauer
Secret Service look on as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town hall at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Thurs., Feb. 4, 2016. – M. Scott Brauer

The US Secret Service has taken an increased role in controlling access and behavior to political events where they operate, and that is raising concerns about journalists’ access and ability to cover the current US presidential election process. For the first time, the Secret Service now has authority over which journalists are issued credentials for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

This article on the Dissent NewsWire published by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee offers a good summary of the issues at hand. First, journalists must have applied for credentials through the Congressional Press Galleries (the deadline was in April). After that application is approved, the process is handed over to the Secret Service to run background checks, though the actual background checks will be handled by a third-party private company called Ardian Group. The same company handled background checks for press covering the Pope’s 2015 visit to the United States.

Writing to media colleagues (parts of which were published by Politico and the Daily Beast) BuzzFeed’s Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton detailed his concerns about the Secret Service’s new role in vetting journalists. “It seems like an unnecessary step and it gives them in my mind a new and troubling precedence to try and exert authority over the press corps,” Stanton wrote. Because the process lacks any transparency, he wonders what might disqualify a reporter from being able to cover the Conventions. Would Christopher Morris be refused access because of his well-documented assault by a Secret Service agent and subsequent removal from a Trump event? What about reporters who’ve been arrested during the process of their reporting? “[T]he Secret Service told POLITICO that such an arrest would not warrant a denial. Instead, they said they were looking for such things as aggravated assault or domestic violence charges — even multiple DUIs wouldn’t necessarily warrant a denial, they said.”

But right now, there is no way to know what will result in a denial of credentials, and as far as I can tell, there is no appeals process for a denied credential. “The Secret Service has refused to explain what past activities would prevent a journalist from obtaining clearance, and there is no viable appeals process. So a reporter may be denied the ability to cover the convention based on incorrect information, or political motivation,” writes Sue Udry for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

“As we understand it, this intrusive vetting process will not be imposed on delegates, alternates and invited guests to the conventions—all of whom will be accessing the same areas in the convention hall as the news media,” BuzzFeed’s Stanton wrote (excerpted at the Daily Beast), “We find it perplexing that subjecting only the news media to a higher level of scrutiny would ensure a secure convention, while thousands of other attendees go unchecked and unverified.”

Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. - screenshot taken 25 May 2016 - http://www.secretservice.gov/about/faqs/
Screenshot of US Secret Service FAQ page with information about background checks and security for so-called National Special Security Events. – screenshot taken 25 May 2016 – http://www.secretservice.gov/about/faqs/

The Secret Service’s authority to do this stems from a 2012 change to US Criminal Code, 18 US Code § 3056 (e) (1), which reads, “When directed by the President, the United States Secret Service is authorized to participate, under the direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security, in the planning, coordination, and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance, as determined by the President,” and Presidential Decision Directive 22, a secret directive issued by President Obama in 2013. Obama’s administration does not have a great track record for ease of press access.

I’m going through the screening process right now, so this is an issue close to me. I ran into issues with the Secret Service a couple of times while covering the New Hampshire primary for my project, This is the worst party I’ve ever been to. Before one Clinton event, a Secret Service officer dropped my flash. At a couple of Trump events, Secret Service officers prevented the press from getting close to the stage, despite promises from the campaign that we would have an opportunity to do so. At one event, members of the press couldn’t go to the bathroom without an escort. At another, a CNN reporter was threatened with being blacklisted from covering future events if he left the designated press area. At a Ben Carson event, Secret Service first denied me access to the event (their information about access times was different from what the campaign press liaison had sent via email) and then told me I couldn’t move around a room where members of the public were allowed to move around without restriction; at that event, the Carson press liaison said she had no problem with me being there or moving around the room, and didn’t know why the Secret Service was being so restrictive.

As it stands, it’s getting more difficult to cover politics, and that’s troubling.

More states move to outlaw photographing police activity; Walter Scott shooting video illustrates the necessity

Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC
Still from video of the shooting death of Walter Scott by policeman Michael Slager in North Charleston, SC

News unfolded this week about the police shooting of the unarmed and fleeing Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. It’s another in a long line of fatal shootings by police, many unprovoked and often with underlying race issues. In March of this year, in fact, American police killed more people (111) than the UK police have killed in total since 1900 (52).

In Walter Scott’s murder, video taken by a bystander has played an incredibly important role. In fact, look at the sort of statements about the killing made before the video was released. Initially the police department defended the actions of police officer Michael Slager, saying he followed all procedures. The graphic video, available at the New York Times, contradicts the initial narrative of the incident and apparently shows the police officer planting a taser near Scott’s body. After the video, officer Slager was arrested and charged with murder. And while video evidence of Eric Garner’s killing by police was not enough for a grand jury indictment (the whole grand jury system has issues, especially when dealing with accused police officers), it’s clear that the right to film and photograph police activity plays an important role in American democracy.

There has been widespread call for police to wear body cameras at all times, though many rightly suggest that this will be most effective only if the cameras and video are controlled and archived by an independent third party. The US Department of Justice has a huge document titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. The ACLU is also worried about violations of individuals’ privacy when police record all activity all the time, as well. Nevertheless, it’s been shown that police body cameras have substantial positive effects on policing, including less violence and fewer citizen complaints.

Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.” Montana Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings)

All of this should illustrate why it is so troubling that states around the country continue attempts to restrict people’s right to record police activity with video or still photography. We’ve covered the issue often over the past few years. This year, both Montana (where I’m from) and Texas legislators have proposed laws restricting the filming of police. The proposed (now dropped, see update below) Texas law HB 2918 would only allow registered “news media” to record police, and only from at least 25 feet away. The Montana law, proposed bill HB633, would also only allow media to film police and require them to get a $100 permit from the police department to be filmed. Rep. Dale Mortensen (R-Billings) introduced the bill and said that, “Sometimes law enforcement makes mistakes, and I would appreciate that, as a former law enforcement officer, that is not aired on TV for entertainment.”

The tide may be turning on this issue, though. Both Colorado and California legislators recently introduced bills to protect those who film police. In Colorado, HB 15-1290, creates punishments for officers found to have interfered with people lawfully recording their activity. The proposed California bill, SB 411, clarifies state law by stating that merely recording a police officer conducting official duty should not automatically be considered interference with a police officer. A Baltimore police department recently paid $250,000 for seizing and deleting people’s cell phone videos. And a Seattle police officer was recently fired after threatening to arrest a newspaper editor for filming him.

The only person involved in the video of Eric Garner’s death to be indicted was the man who recorded the video of the incident. Though his indictment was not related to the filming, he fears that guards will poison his food at Rikers Prison, just as is alleged by 19 other inmates there. The man who filmed the killing of Walter Scott told the Washington Post that he kept the footage secret for days, fearing for his life, but ultimately decided to let the video out because of how different it was from how police described the incident.

As always, know your rights when filming or photographing police. And even if you believe you’re in the right, if the situation turns dangerous and a police officer threatens you, it’s best not to escalate the situation with a discussion of your rights. Nevertheless, here are some good guides regarding photography and the police in the US: 7 Rules for Recording the Police and the ACLU’s various links regarding police and photography.

UPDATE (13 April 2015): The Texas bill to limit recording of police activity has been dropped. The sponsoring politician cited large public outcry as a reason for withdrawing the bill.

Remembering Journalists Killed in 2014

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It was another tragic year for journalism, with dozens of colleagues – and a few friends – killed while doing their work.

In May we received news that Camille LePage was killed while on assignment in the Central African Republic. The same month Cesuralab’s Andy Rocchelli was killed in Ukraine. This summer saw high-profile murders of Western journalists in Syria, where we lost James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Dozens more photographers, journalists and media workers have also been targeted and killed in that and many more countries worldwide.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that in 2014 60 journalists killed were because of their profession alongside 11 media workers who died and a further 18 deaths whose motive is unconfirmed. See their report for detailed information and statistics about all of the journalists who were killed this year, and other reports going back to 1992.

As the CPJ says in the infographic we’ve reposted above, keep the sacrifices of our colleagues in mind as you think back at all of the wonderful reporting and photographs of 2014.