In a move reminiscent of then-ABC journalist John Miller’s 1998 interview of deceased terrorist Osama Bin Laden, actor Sean Penn has interviewed the Western Hemisphere’s most notorious drug lord and fugitive under legally questionable circumstances.
Only three years before the tragic al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11, then-ABC journalist John Miller and a small crew traveled under clandestine circumstances through the border regions of Pakistan and into Afghanistan. Their purpose was to interview Osama Bin Laden, who was at the time not as reviled or well known as he would be three years later, but a terrorist nonetheless.
Only three months ago, Hollywood actor Sean Penn traveled to the deepest reaches of rural Sinaloa state in Mexico to interview the most wanted man in the Western Hemisphere at the time, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, for Rolling Stone magazine. He was accompanied by several people, but most notably by Mexican film and television star Kate del Castillo, who is known for her role in the narco-themed telenovela called Reina del Sur.
The methods both Miller and Penn used to reach their subjects—abandoning all methods of communication and recording devices, not being able to write much, if anything at all, receiving limited responses to adapted questions—are almost identical. The roads to reach their subjects of interest were long, winding, and vague at best. Both men were interviewing men highly sought after by the U.S. and local governments. However, the two men were working under very different pretenses—one as a legitimate credentialed journalist with certain protections, and the other as a celebrity in danger of glorifying a drug smuggling murderer.
The first question people ask after reading a journalist’s interview with a terrorist or an at-large criminal is often, Why didn’t they tell the authorities where they are? Legally, journalists are offered certain legal protections under the First Amendment and case law when interviewing criminals. These stories are common in documentaries like Drugs, Inc. on the National Geographic Channel where active drug dealers explain their lives and methods.
In Miller’s case, he testified in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2008 about his experience at the military commission trial of bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan. Miller, who went on to become the FBI’s chief spokesman and the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism chief, even took video of Bin Laden, and clips were shown at the trial. Trained and credentialed journalists have to take certain steps to earn the trust of their interview subjects in order to suss out a story, and as distasteful as it is to many people, have certain privileges as members of the press to prevent disclosure of information that may bring harm to their sources.
However, in Sean Penn’s case, he was not a journalist credentialed by Rolling Stone—neither was Castillo—and he even admitted he did not accept any financial compensation for traveling several times to Mexico to conduct the interview with Guzmán. On January 9, a Mexican government source told ABC News that both Penn and Castillo were under investigation for meeting with Guzmán. Although state “shield laws” exist to exempt reporters from having to divulge sensitive information about confidential sources under subpoena, Guzmán was anything but a confidential source, and the long list of indictments levied against him by half a dozen U.S. courts is very public.
As revolting as the thought may be of two individuals knowing the whereabouts of such killers and not divulging them, it’s much easier to understand the protected nature and journalistic value of Miller’s 1998 Bin Laden interview. However, it is hard to see Penn’s conversation with El Chapo as anything more than a misguided attempt by an idealistic celebrity to humanize—and perhaps glorify—a drug trafficker and cold-blooded killer.
Sylvia Longmire is a border security expert and Contributing Editor for Breitbart Texas. You can read more about cross-border issues in her latest book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer.