FP Explainer

Can the White House Revoke a Reporter’s Credentials?

Not really.

Today, after 50 years of covering the White House, Hearst newspapers columnist Helen Thomas announced her retirement after the widespread outrage that followed the release of a video in which she says that Jews in Israel should "go back to Germany and Poland." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Thomas's remarks "offensive and reprehensible." But if the 89-year-old Thomas had insisted on remaining, could the White House have forced her out of the press corps?

Probably not. To get accredited for the White House, a reporter first needs to be approved for a congressional press pass by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, elected by accredited reporters. (A notable exception to this rule was Jeff Gannon of the conservative website Talon News, who was repeatedly allowed to ask -- usually friendly -- questions during the George W. Bush administration's White House press briefings despite never being given a congressional pass. Gannon's presence in the press room became a minor scandal when liberal bloggers revealed that he had posted X-rated pictures of himself on the Internet and had worked as a gay escort.)

Among other requirements, congressional reporters must demonstrate that they work for a publication whose "principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public" and is "editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government." The White House also requires an additional Secret Service background check. The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), a professional association of journalists who cover the president, is not involved in the credentialing process, and White House reporters are not required to be WHCA members.

Once you've got the pass, you can renew it every year without additional scrutiny. More than 2,000 reporters have "hard passes" to the White House, though the vast majority don't work out of the building every day and the briefing room seats just 50 people, with standing room for about another 30.

Because administrations generally don't want to be seen as deciding who is or isn't a qualified journalist, it's unheard of for a reporter to be suspended for the quality of his or her reporting or behavior, though there are a few notable cases of reporters being barred for security reasons.

The Nation's Robert Sherrill was denied Secret Service clearance during Lyndon Johnson's administration on the grounds that he posed a physical threat to the president. (He had gotten into a few fistfights with government officials earlier in his career.) Sherrill went on to cover the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations as the Nation's White House correspondent despite being barred from the building. Even after the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged Sherrill's barring in federal court, he didn't bother to get a pass, saying he had better things to do than "sitting around for some dumb [expletive] to give a press conference."

Another reporter who fell afoul of White House security rules was Trude Feldman, a longtime freelancer for a number of mostly Jewish newspapers who covered every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Feldman was famous for her softball interview style -- she irritated other correspondents by scoring a rare interview with Bill Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and asking him such probing questions as, "How will you strive to be a better president as well as a global leader?" Feldman was suspended from the White House for 90 days in 2001 after security cameras caught her rifling through a press aide's desk late at night. Feldman returned, eventually retiring in 2007.

The White House may frown on trespassing, but assaulting fellow reporters is apparently tolerated. Notorious press room eccentric Naomi Nover inherited a hard pass from her husband, a former Denver Post reporter, in 1973 and paid her own way on nearly every presidential trip abroad until her death in 1995 despite never actually doing any reporting. Once, during the Carter administration, she began swinging her handbag at Baltimore Sun correspondent Carl Leubsdorf, whom she thought had been laughing at her. Some years later, the 4'11'' Nover whacked Los Angeles Times photographer Bernie Boston, who was blocking her view of Ronald Reagan and Mother Theresa, with an umbrella.

Other dubious press corps veterans include Baltimore radio host Les Kinsolving, who covers the White House for the conspiratorially minded website WorldNetDaily. On the rare occasions when he gets called on, Kinsolving is known for launching into opinionated diatribes that only occasionally take the form of questions. Lately he has become fixated on the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate. Kinsolving bills himself on his own website as "one of the few who has the guts to ask probing questions and even providing [sic] comic relief."

Another unusual fixture is Indian journalist Raghubir Goyal, who reports on the White House for the India Globe, a publication whose website contains no content. Goyal is known for asking lengthy questions about India policy, particularly on Kashmir, no matter what else is going on in the world. He became known as "Goyal the Foil" during the Bush administration because of Press Secretary Scott McClellan's habit of calling on him when facing tough questions from other reporters. Goyal recently raised some eyebrows by asking Gibbs about the Obama administration's stance on yoga.

Thanks to the White House Correspondents Association

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FP Explainer

What’s the Right Way to Board a Hostile Ship?

Quickly and with overwhelming force ... or not at all.

The Israeli military has admitted that failures of both planning and execution led to the botched raid on a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists last weekend, which left nine dead and has erupted into an international scandal. With two more activist ships on the way, a top Israeli Navy commander has promised to use more aggressive force next time and prepare "as if it was a war." So what's the right way to seize a ship?

It all depends on the situation. Thanks to both the growing problem of international piracy and the enforcement of new arms embargoes, Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) tactics have become an increasingly important part of naval operations. In the United States, special units of the Coast Guard, Navy, and Naval Special Forces are all trained in VBSS.

The first step in any boarding operation is to figure out what you're dealing with. The naval ship or helicopter that encounters a suspicious vessel will contact the suspicious vessel and attempt to ascertain whether a "compliant" or "noncompliant" boarding is required. Given what was known about the crew and political aims of those on board the Mavi Marmara, the Israeli commandoes should probably have assumed non-compliance.

In the event of a noncompliant boarding, there are two options for how you get on the ship -- side boarding from a small boat or rappelling down from a helicopter. The U.S. Coast Guard, which mainly interdicts small ships suspected of carrying drugs or illegal immigrants, almost always uses side boardings. Large ships, however, like the 4,000-ton Mavi Marmara, are relatively easy to defend from invaders scaling up the sides, as Greenpeace protesters and Somali pirates have learned. In the U.S. Navy, only Special Forces units like the SEALs do noncompliant boardings of large ships.

Helicopter insertions have their own challenges. Most experts say they should be done when troops can rappel down quickly and when there's a clear landing area for boarders to establish their position. The Israeli military's video of the Mavi Marmara raid shows that neither of these conditions were met. In typical helicopter VBSS operations, the boarders land near the ship's pilot house, where they can quickly take control of the vessel. The Israeli team landed on the open deck instead.

The size of the boarding team depends of the size and crew of the ship being boarded, but at a minimum, there should be enough boarders to guard the crew in one section of the ship while sweeper teams search for contraband, weapons, or hidden crewmembers.

Unlike the Israeli commandos, some of whom carried only paintball guns onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, U.S. Coast Guard officers carry at least a handgun onto every boarding, even compliant ones.

If a safe boarding is not possible, there are other options for preventing a ship from delivering contraband or breaching an embargo. The navy vessel can attempt to force a ship to turn around by firing a warning shot, an internationally recognized tactic. With the right size advantage, a naval vessel can "shoulder" a civilian ship -- literally push it off course. (This probably isn't an option for the Israeli Navy, which doesn't have any ships larger than a corvette.) Or it can attempt to disable the ship's propeller or rudder. The simplest way to do this is by firing on the ship, but the recent piracy boom has spawned a cottage industry of new, non-lethal propeller-fouling technologies

The bottom line is that Israel seems to have erred in assuming a compliant  boarding, choosing a landing site, and inadequately arming the boarding team. It's unlikely they will make the same mistakes twice, but even with the best planning, carrying out a noncompliant boarding with the entire world watching on TV is a scenario that isn't covered in any naval manual.

Thanks to Lt. Paul St. Pierre of the U.S. Coast Guard, , Cdr. Bryan McGrath of the U.S. Navy (Ret.), Cdr. James Kraska, chair of operational law at the U.S. Naval War College, and Edward Luttwak, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Got a question for the FP explainer? E-mail explainer [at] foreignpolicy.com.