Obama's Attacks on Journalists are Worst Since Nixon
It's hardly news that the Obama administration is intensely and, in many respects, unprecedentedly hostile toward the news-gathering process. Even the most Obama-friendly journals have warned of what they call "Obama's war on whistleblowers". James Goodale, the former general counsel of the New York Times during its epic fights with the Nixon administration, recently observed that "President Obama wants to criminalize the reporting of national security information" and added: "President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom."
Still, a new report released today by the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists - its first-ever on press freedoms in the US - powerfully underscores just how extreme is the threat to press freedom posed by this administration. Written by former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr., the report offers a comprehensive survey of the multiple ways that the Obama presidency has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for journalists and sources alike, one that severely threatens the news-gathering process.
The first sentence: "In the Obama administration's Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press." Among the most shameful aspects of the Obama record:
Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press—compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters' phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being 'an aider, abettor and/or conspirator' of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail."
It goes on to detail how NSA revelations have made journalists and source petrified even to speak with one another for fear they are being surveilled:
'I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails,' said veteran national security journalist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity, an influential nonprofit government accountability news organization in Washington. 'It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts,' he said."
It quotes New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane as saying that sources are "scared to death." It quotes New York Times reporter David Sanger as saying that "this is the most closed, control freak administration I've ever covered." And it notes that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan previously wrote that "it's turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press."
Based on all this, Downie himself concludes:
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."
And this pernicious dynamic extends far beyond national security: "Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said 'the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration' in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies." It identifies at least a dozen other long-time journalists making similar observations.
The report ends by noting the glaring irony that Obama aggressively campaigned on a pledge to usher in The Most Transparent Administration Ever™. Instead, as the New Yorker's investigative reporter Jane Mayer recently said about the Obama administration's attacks: "It's a huge impediment to reporting, and so chilling isn't quite strong enough, it's more like freezing the whole process into a standstill."
Back in 2006, back when I was writing frequently about the Bush administration's attacks on press freedom, the focus was on mere threats to take some of these actions, and that caused severe anger from vocal progressives. Now, as this new report documents, we have moved well beyond the realm of mere threats into undeniable reality, and the silence is as deafening as the danger is pronounced.
Along with David Miranda, I testified yesterday before a Committee of the Brazilian Senate investigating NSA spying, and beyond our latest revelations about economic spying aimed at Brazil, one of the issues discussed was the war on press freedoms being waged by the US and UK governments to prevent reporting of these stories. The Guardian, via Reuters, has a two-minute video with an excerpt of my testimony on that issue.
Edward Snowden was awarded this year's Sam Adams Whistleblower Award, and several of his fellow heroic whistleblowers - including Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack and Coleen Rowley - traveled to Moscow to present it to him. An excellent photo of that event is here.