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Nat. Review protests journalist detention

By United Press International

WASHINGTON, July 15 (UPI) -- The following is the text of a letter written by National Review Editor Richard Lowry to protest the detention of its correspondent Joel Mowbray on July 12, 2002, as published in the National Review under the headline "Let Mowbray Report" on July 15, 2002:

July 15, 2002

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Richard Boucher

Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs

U.S. Department of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. Boucher,

I am writing to protest the State Department's treatment of National Review Online contributor Joel Mowbray last Friday.

Mr. Mowbray was detained by diplomatic security service officers in what I can only conclude was an attempt to intimidate a reporter whose work had proven highly inconvenient to the department.

When Mr. Mowbray reported in the July 1 National Review on the "Visa Express" program designed to give Saudi nationals easy access to the United States, the department's response was to attack Mr. Mowbray personally as a liar.

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A press officer at the department's Consular Affairs office went on Fox News to say that "every word he writes is a lie, including 'the' and `and.'"

Fortunately, Congress wasn't distracted by such personal attacks on Mr. Mowbray, and instead followed up with hearings that vindicated his reporting: the State Department had indeed been running a "Visa Express" program that often allowed Saudis into the country with barely a second glance (as you know, three of the Sept. 11th hijackers got U.S. visas without an interview, thanks to this program).

The State Department responded to all the attention with a campaign of extraordinary mendacity, maintaining that the "Visa Express" program had been eliminated even though only its name was changed and all the other lax procedures were left in place.

This appeared to be a calculated attempt by the Consular Affairs and press offices to deceive Congress, and the public, about the program.

During this time, Mr. Mowbray was writing almost-daily pieces on National Review Online rebutting the State Department spin.

Things reached a head last week when, within 12 hours of one of your denunciations of Mr. Mowbray's reporting as a collection of "myths," the department did an abrupt about-face and fired the official responsible for visa-issuance, Mary Ryan, the longest-serving career diplomat at the department.

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Also, that same day the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan, wrote a cable to Washington requesting that the "Visa Express" program, with its bias toward not interviewing Saudi visa applicants, be canceled.

"I am deeply troubled," he wrote, "about the prevailing perception in the media and within Congress and possibly the American public at large that our current practices represent a shameful and inadequate effort on our part."

This classified cable was highly embarrassing to the department, and to you personally, since it contradicted what you had been trying to pretend: that the "Visa Express" program had already been canceled.

The cable was classified, but contained nothing sensitive to national security, just a politically embarrassing policy recommendation. A whistleblower leaked the cable to Mr. Mowbray. He reported on the memo on National Review Online on Wednesday morning.

The Washington Post followed up with a report the next day that also quoted the cable.

On Friday, Mr. Mowbray brought a copy of the cable --- which you already knew was in his possession, from his prior reporting --- to your press briefing because he strongly suspected that you would try to distort its contents. Unfortunately, he was correct.

You said the cable was only a plea for more resources and not an end to the program (even though the subject line of the memo was "Request for Guidance on Termination of Visa Express").

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As you might well have anticipated, Mr. Mowbray contradicted you, pointing out that he had evidence to the contrary in black and white, in his hands, in the form of the cable.

After an acrimonious exchange during which you misrepresented his work, Mr. Mowbray attempted to leave the briefing and the building. He was stopped by a State Department official with four armed security guards, who began to ask him for his source for the document.

Mr. Mowbray appropriately refused to identify the whistle-blower who had given him the document in the interest of having the public fully informed on the disposition of the "Visa Express" program (since, frankly, you weren't doing a very good job of it).

When Mowbray began to get the feeling that he couldn't leave even if he wanted to, he asked, "Am I being detained?"

When a diplomatic security official told him "no," Mowbray announced that he was leaving.

At which point, the guard stepped in front of Mowbray and said, "Now, you're being detained." He was physically kept from leaving the building, and repeatedly pushed to reveal his source, until, for whatever reason, he was allowed to go.

Now, let me assure you, Mr. Boucher, that few publications take security as seriously as National Review. We would fully support an effort by the State Department, for instance, to keep a reporter from grabbing classified material off someone's desk and exiting the building with it.

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But that was far from the case here. The cable in question had already been reported on in National Review Online and the Washington Post. If the State Department considered the cable so sensitive it should have rushed officials to the offices of Mr. Mowbray and the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt and Glenn Kessler on Wednesday or Thursday to question them about it.

The fact is that Mr. Mowbray was trying to leave the building with the cable, only because he had entered the building with it in the first place. So, his detention could have had no security purpose, and you knew this, since you obviously followed Mr. Mowbray's reporting (several recent briefings were devoted to rebutting it), and presumably read the Washington Post.

The only reason, then, to hold Mr. Mowbray against his will in the building must have been to intimidate a young reporter who had made your life difficult.

I regret to say that I have found your conduct in this entire visa controversy, slipshod, deceptive, and, now, even thuggish.

I ask for a personal assurance from you that Mr. Mowbray will be allowed to continue his reporting at the State Department with no risk of similar incidents in the future, and indeed without any harassment at all.

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Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.

Sincerely,

Richard Lowry

Editor

National Review

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