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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Ballad of David Miranda: William Worthy is the Right Precedent for Miranda Case

Reports today that Britain is defending its confiscation of electronic media from Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda by arguing that Miranda was engaged in "terrorism" by traveling with copies of documents leaked by Edward Snowden brings to mind an earlier precedent that illustrates how Miranda's suit seeking the return of the confiscated property ought to be resolved: the case of journalist and activist William Worthy.  When the U.S. government seized copies of U.S. classified documents in Worthy's possession, Worthy sued and ultimately got the equivalent of a rare apology from the U.S. government for violating his constitutional rights -- and $16,000!

In 1981, Worthy and two colleagues were among the first U.S. journalists in Iran following the 1979 fall of the Shah and the 1981 release of the U.S. hostages. While there, they purchased 12 volumes of books published by a group of Iranian students which included classified documents seized from the U.S. embassy in Tehran (previously discussed here and available online here).

When the journalists came back to the United States, however, FBI agents met and questioned them and Customs officials confiscated the volumes of documents. Although charges were never brought, WashPo reported at the time that according to "Justice sources" the U.S. government considered using the situation as "a trial case to establish that any possession or publication of classified information is illegal, although officials have yet to decide whether to prosecute the three journalists." Morever, WashPo stated
Although several of the documents have been circulated in the United States, most have never been printed here. Justice Department sources say the department . . . hopes to prevent the return of the documents to Worthy . . . and to establish a legal rationale for such seizures where non-government officials possess copies of classified materials.
In the Bazaars, Anyone Can Buy U.S. Secrets, Wash. Post, Jan. 31, 1982, at A18 (pox on WashPo for no free link).

While Customs confiscated the volumes in the journalists' luggage, a second copy sent by Worthy through the mail resulted in a series of front-page stories in the Washington Post (again pox on WashPo for no free links). See, e.g., Scott Armstrong, Iran Documents Give Rare Glimpse of a CIA Enterprise, Wash. Post, Jan. 31, 1982, at A1; Scott Armstrong, Intelligence Experts Had Early Doubts About Shah's Stability; '76 Intelligence Reports Cast Doubt on Stability of Shah, Wash. Post, Feb. 2, 1982, at A1; Scott Armstrong, The Shah's Last Days; Gloomy Reports by Career Diplomats Never Registered with Foggy Bottom, Wash. Post, Feb. 3, 1982, at A1.

With representation from the ACLU, Worthy filed suit in January 1982 seeking the return of the confiscated documents and alleging that the government had violated his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments (the case is Worthy v. Webster, Docket No. 82-0183 (D.D.C), but someone needs to visit the National Archives to pull the records).

What happened?

It is a sad day when we have to look to the Reagan Administration for an example of doing the right thing, but the Department of Justice did the opposite of what Britain is doing now and agreed to a settlement with Worthy, in which the U.S. government completely capitulated.  The government returned the confiscated books, agreed to destroy all fingerprints taken from the journalists and all investigative records, and paid them a $16,000 apology. See U.S. Settles Journalists Suit, Wash. Post, Dec. 10, 1982. If only Britain would follow that example today.

In 2008, William Worthy was awarded the Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism from Harvard which noted his role in the publication of the classified U.S. documents from Iran, but the greatest tribute to Worthy still has to be the "Ballad of William Worthy" by the great Phil Ochs (which related to an earlier controversy involving Worthy, but is still relevant).  If only Phil Ochs were around today to write one for that "terrorist" David Miranda . . .

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