Joe Conason's Journal

In a gross abuse of authority for political gain, the State Department has insisted that Wesley Clark's scheduled testimony against Milosevic be closed to the press.

By Salon Staff
Published December 4, 2003 7:02PM (EST)

Why is the State Department silencing Clark?
Among the topics most passionately argued by Democratic presidential candidates and their handlers is who among them would be the nominee most (or least) favored by Karl Rove. Which Democrat does the White House prefer to see win the nomination? And which of the nine is most feared as a potential challenger?

Lately Howard Dean is most often mentioned by Republicans as their favorite Democratic nominee (although they probably daydream about Al Sharpton). Dean's supporters reply that such trash talk is merely Rovian misdirection, designed to dupe primary voters into rejecting the former Vermont governor. Perhaps so, but this month the Bush administration is actually using its power to suppress news coverage of another Democratic rival.

That would be Wesley Clark, whose scheduled testimony against Slobodan Milosevic at the former Serbian dictator's genocide trial will reportedly be closed to the press and public -- at the insistence of the U.S. State Department.

According to Knight-Ridder, State Department officials have demanded a sealed courtroom, cleared of journalists and other spectators, when Clark appears at The Hague on Dec. 15 and 16. American officials have also shut down the cameras that normally broadcast the Milosevic trial on closed-circuit television and over the Internet. Finally, the transcript will be withheld from reporters and the public for two days while U.S. officials vet Clark's testimony to request the removal of any statement that might somehow endanger American security interests.

Tom Hundley interviewed prosecutors at The Hague, who told him that they aren't pleased with this kind of interference because it tends to discredit international due process in the affected countries. But why would the Bush administration care? On its best days this White House displays little interest in allied nations' concerns, and even less in the pursuit of international justice.

High officials from several countries have testified in open court, including the German general who commanded his country's forces in Kosovo and two British envoys who played key roles in the Balkan crisis. Of all the governments with delicate information to protect, only the Bush administration has prevented a former official's testimony from being heard live. As Hundley writes:

"When high-ranking officials are called as witnesses, the normal procedure for dealing with sensitive testimony is to allow representatives of their government to be present in the courtroom and to intervene if they believe the official's testimony might harm national interests. The tribunal then goes into a temporary closed session to deal with that portion of the testimony. 'Closed sessions are for victims who might be harmed, not governments who might be embarrassed,' said a tribunal source."

In what respect could our national security be jeopardized by Clark's testimony? Actually, U.S. security and prestige would more likely be enhanced by worldwide coverage of a former American general testifying about his country's defense of the oppressed Balkan Muslims.

Besides, the former Allied commander has already written a book about his service in Europe and spoken publicly about those events on many occasions. In that vein, Hundley notes how the Bush bureaucrats used the same tactic to stifle Richard Holbrooke when he was called to testify against Milosevic last year. (They thus prevented the former Clinton envoy's appearance at The Hague, at least temporarily.) Of course Holbrooke too has written a memoir and talked frequently about Milosevic, Bosnia and Kosovo.

A spokesman for the State Department refused to answer any of Hundley's specific questions about the strange decision to black out Clark. In the absence of any convincing explanation, this appears to be a matter not only of harmful judicial meddling and unwarranted censorship, but a gross abuse of diplomatic authority for domestic political advantage as well.

Wisely, Clark has said nothing about the restrictions placed on him by the State Department. This is an episode that requires no additional comment.
[10:30 a.m. PST, Dec. 4, 2003]

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