Free speech, free movie tickets


Journalist Jeremy Scahill takes a hard look at U.S. covert operations in “Dirty Wars." (Pilar Olivares/REUTERS)
October 31, 2013

Tuesday’s daily State Department briefing seemed fairly humdrum — until the end, when department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Associated Press reporter Matt Lee.

“Apparently the U.S. Embassy in Canberra is offering free tickets to see the movie ‘Dirty Wars’ ” at the Australian capital’s film festival, Lee said, asking whether anyone in Foggy Bottom knew about ticket freebies being offered on the embassy Twitter account to a “documentary about undercover JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] operations around the world that is not exactly the kind of movie that portrays the U.S. government in a positive light.”

Indeed. As The Washington Post’s review noted of the movie, produced and co-written by reporter Jeremy Scahill of the Nation: “The narrative begins in an Afghan village near the city of Gardez, with Scahill investigating a 2010 raid by U.S. forces that left several civilians, including two pregnant women, dead. Although the U.S. military initially denied involvement, it eventually admitted to its role and apologized for the deaths with the gift of a sheep to the villagers, who refer to the bearded commandos who stormed their home as “American Taliban.” The film doesn’t change gears after that.

Psaki said she would check out the report.

Lee followed up Wednesday, noting that, of course, “one could argue that it is laudable that the embassy would want to, you know, promote divergent views of things.”

“Well, as always, context is important,” Psaki said, adding that the department’s public diplomacy and outreach programs worldwide “promote independent films, promote Hollywood films. That’s something we’re doing here.” The Canberra film festival “has dozens of movies, including 16 U.S. films,” and the department is “providing some funding for that,” she said, and the embassy is offering “a range of tickets for . . . more than a half-dozen movies.”

“We believe in freedom of speech,” she said. “We’re not judging or advocating or endorsing any of the movies, but we are just simply encouraging people to participate in the film festival.”

Besides, it’s not as if they are giving away small American flags for people to burn after the movie.

Fredo’s fabulous new life

Loop Favorite and former attorney general Alberto “Fredo” Gonzales is on a roll these days. When last we checked in on him a couple years ago, there was good news. Gonzales had had a tough time signing on with a law firm because of his controversial Bush administration actions, things like that race to George Washington University Hospital to get an ailing attorney general, John Ashcroft, to approve a highly questionable domestic surveillance program; the controversial firing of some U.S. attorneys; his approval of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But he landed a job at a Nashville law firm, Waller Lansden. It wasn’t a partnership, only an “of counsel” gig, but it was a start.

The new firm describes him thusly on its Web site: “Whether a client has discovered an issue that requires strategic crisis management assistance, or has received a subpoena or search warrant from a government agency, Judge Gonzales is uniquely prepared to deliver sound guidance and representation.”

“Uniquely prepared”? Seems about right.

And there was more good news. Gonzales, who had been teaching at Texas Tech, was headed to a job as a law professor at Nashville’s new law school, Belmont University, which has since gotten provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association.

Wait — there’s more! This week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) appointed Gonzales to sit on a panel that nominates folks for the state’s appeals courts and the state supreme court. We recall that as Texas governor, George W. Bush had appointed Gonzales to the state Supreme Court. So it’s all coming together for Fredo.

Listening, not laughing

The National Security Agency has been having some tough times of late, infuriating America’s closest allies — especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who are upset over reports that the agency has been engaged in unfriendly monitoring of their electronic skies.

Worse yet, this week it was hit with a lawsuit filed by Public Citizen in federal court in Maryland for one Dan McCall of Minnesota, operator of LibertyManiacs.com, which sells “Freedom products for liberty lovers.” The products are humorous T-shirts, hats, mugs, bumper stickers and such with all manner of political slogans.

The NSA, for some reason, did not appreciate a design that used its official seal with the words “Spying on you since 1952.” And then there’s the design boasting that the agency is “The only part of government that actually listens.” The seal is altered a little — the official one doesn’t say “PEEPING WHILE YOU’RE SLEEPING.”

In 2011, the agency notified Zazzle.com, which made the products for McCall and operated a virtual store for his site, that federal law made it illegal to use the NSA name or seal that way, the eight-page lawsuit said.

The folks at the Department of Homeland Security weighed in a couple of months later objecting to a design with a version of the seal and the words “Department of Homeland Stupidity.” The DHS warned that it was a crime to mess with the seal of any federal agency that and a violator was subject to “fines and/or imprisonment,” the suit said.

Zazzle withdrew the items. (Another site, CafePress, still sells them, Public Citizen lawyer Paul Levy tells us.) So McCall sued, saying the parodies of NSA listening and DHS stupidity are protected under the First Amendment. He demanded that the agencies back off.

Guess we’ll see who laughs last.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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