President Barack Obama’s administration has been more hostile to the press, more secretive and more aggressive when it comes to cracking down on leaks than any recent president in American history, according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Written by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, with research contributed by Sara Rafsky, what is focused upon is how the Obama administration has operated so the smallest amount of information about what the administration is really doing winds up in the hands of reporters. It provides a full overview of the way in which the administration has used a World War I-era law, the Espionage Act, to prosecute leakers. It examines the deepening chilling effect for journalists that has developed as more and more media organizations realize their work can easily be subjected to government surveillance.
Most significantly, it makes the important connection between the war on leaks to attacks on press freedom, acknowledging how the pursuit of leakers is affecting the news gathering process and the ability of reporters to produce investigative journalism. It also points to how rampant over-classification is enabling the administration to abuse secrecy.
“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent,” according to Downie.
The views expressed by journalists, who have had interactions with the administration and who expressed their views to Downie, are the highlight of the report.
Washington Post national security reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who is a member of CPJ’s board of directors, stated, “One of the most pernicious effects is the chilling effect created across government on matters that are less sensitive but certainly in the public interest as a check on government and elected officials. It serves to shield and obscure the business of government from necessary accountability.”
Senior managing editor of The Associated Press, Michael Oreskes, whose organization had the phone records for phone lines and switchboards used by at least 100 reporters seized by the Justice Department as part of a leak investigation, declared, “There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders. Sources are more jittery and more standoffish, not just in national security reporting. A lot of skittishness is at the more routine level. The Obama administration has been extremely controlling and extremely resistant to journalistic intervention. There’s a mind-set and approach that holds journalists at a greater distance.”
According to Josh Gerstein of POLITICO, “The Obama people will spend an hour with you, off the record, arguing about the premise of the story.” And, “If the story is basically one that they don’t want to come out, they won’t even give you the basic facts.”
Ellen Weiss, who is the Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, suggested “‘the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration’ in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies. Among several examples she cited, the Environmental Protection Agency ‘just wouldn’t talk to us’ or release records about environmental policy review panels ‘filled by people with ties to target companies.’”
ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton explained to Downie that, “in the past,” reporters “would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”
“After coming to Washington several years ago from a posting in China,” Financial Times correspondent Richard McGregor said he was surprised that “covering this White House is pretty miserable in terms of getting anything of substance to report on in what should be a much more open system. If the US starts backsliding, it is not only a bad example for more closed states, but also for other democracies that have been influenced by the US [to be more transparent].”
The report characterizes the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) for releasing classified information to WikiLeaks that included diplomatic cables, detainee assessment reports from Guantanamo Bay, military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and an Apache helicopter attack video from Iraq known as the “Collateral Murder” video, etc, as a turning point.
According to Lucy Dalglish, who served as a director for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, the administration decided it had to send a message. Part of the strategy became relying on the 1917 Espionage Act to make examples of leakers.
Further highlighted through the report is how the administration is unwilling to acknowledge that anyone who leaks, especially on matters related to national security, is a whistleblower.
For example, Downie asked former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller about former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who is being prosecuted for providing information to New York Times reporter James Risen on what the CIA knew about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He exposed “significant problems plaguing the CIA at the time. Yet, Miller maintained, “Jeffrey Sterling is not a whistleblower.”
“He was fired for a cause. He went to court and the case was thrown out. No waste, fraud, or abuse was involved,” Miller added.
Downie appropriately rebuts what he calls a “disturbing distinction that the Obama administration has made repeatedly.”
Exposing “waste, fraud and abuse” is considered to be whistle-blowing. But exposing questionable government policies and actions, even if they could be illegal or unconstitutional, is often considered to be leaking that must be stopped and punished. This greatly reduces the potential for the press to help hold the government accountable to citizens.
The report extensively details how the administration has contributed to a climate of fear among journalists while at the same time acknowledging the role whistleblowers and leaks play in being able to hold government accountable.
And the mere fact that CPJ even produced a report is a stunning indictment of the administration. Typically, CPJ has focused on repressive regimes that are targeting, imprisoning and even killing journalists in countries like Iran, Russia, China, Egypt or Syria. CPJ realized it needed to focus some attention on the administration because of the example it was setting for other countries—that it is acceptable to say one’s administration is committed to openness and transparency and at the same time operate in a completely opaque manner to obscure the truth of what government is doing each and every day.
The full report can be read here.