by Kristin Jones, ProPublica
In an online Q&A session on the Washington Post's site last week, reporter Dana Milbank said that the Secret Service, in collaboration with campaign officials, had been blocking the press from conducting interviews in the crowds at rallies for Gov. Sarah Palin. Milbank was asked a question about a campaign event in Scranton, Pa. (A local newspaper reported that a member of the crowd had yelled "Kill him!" at a mention of Sen. Barack Obama, and the Secret Service had said publicly that the report had no basis.)
Here's what Milbank said:
"I wasn't at the Scranton event, but I have to say the Secret Service is in dangerous territory here. In cooperation with the Palin campaign, they've started preventing reporters from leaving the press section to interview people in the crowd. This is a serious violation of their duty -- protecting the protectee -- and gets into assisting with the political aspirations of the candidate. It also often makes it impossible for reporters to get into the crowd to question the people who say vulgar things. So they prevent reporters from getting near the people doing the shouting, then claim it's unfounded because the reporters can't get close enough to identify the person." (Emphasis added.)
The accusation quickly made its way around the Web. Milbank told us he was referring to a rally he covered in Clearwater, Fla. He was the first to report, in connection with that rally, that a member of the crowd shouted a death threat against Obama. Unidentified security "escorts" at that event prevented credentialed reporters from mingling with the crowd. When asked why, an official told a reporter it was because negative things had been written about the campaign in the past, according to an account in the St. Petersburg Times.
Is this even legal?
"I can't imagine under what theory it would be legal," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "If somebody's at a private event and they allow the media in, they could control where they go. If it's out in public and the public has the right to move around, there would be no justification for stopping journalists."
But the Secret Service says Milbank has it wrong.
"It's not a function of the Secret Service to prevent or limit reporters from interviewing the people at events," said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan. "We've never been asked by any campaign to do that."
Donovan said that at rallies for all the candidates, the Secret Service sometimes separates the press corps that is credentialed to cover the event—known as the pool—from the general public. That is for logistical and security reasons, he said.
"Being in a press pool gives them special access," said Donovan. "But the other side is that they have to stay together. You keep national press away from the local press for the same reason."
Any journalist can get around these restrictions simply by attending the rally as a member of the public rather than a part of the press pool, he said.
That is what David Singleton did. He is the journalist who heard the shout of "Kill him!" at the Scranton rally on Tuesday, and reported it in the Scranton Times-Tribune. Singleton was not part of the press pool; he simply walked into the rally. Once inside, he could talk to whomever he wanted, he told us.
It wasn't until after he wrote the story that he had any contact with the Secret Service. Almost a full day after his "Kill him!" story was posted online, Singleton said a Secret Service spokesperson called to suggest that he should not have published it.
The Secret Service also said agents had investigated the report and could find no witnesses to corroborate the reported scream.
Agency spokesperson Donovan disputed that Singleton was told he shouldn't have published word of the alleged threat: "The reporter was merely asked if there was any further information."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has recorded a few incidents involving intimidation of writers and journalists by the Secret Service, usually in connection with something they've written about a protectee. In 2001, the organization wrote a letter of protest after the Secret Service questioned a SUNY college journalist, searched his home and asked him to submit to a psychological examination. The agents were following up on an editorial that the student had written asking Jesus Christ to "smite" George W. Bush.
Cross-posted at ProPublica, America's largest investigative newsroom.