“This is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.“
That is what David E. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, told former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie. Sanger was one of 30 journalists Downie interviewed for a report on the Obama administration’s efforts to control leaks. Downie, who was one of the editors involved in the Post’s Watergate investigation, called the administration’s “war on leaks” the most aggressive since the Nixon administration.
The Obama Administration and the Press
by Leonard Downie Jr. with reporting by Sara Rafsky, Committee to Protect Journalists
Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America
U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise. Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press. Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.
Compounding the concerns of journalists and the government officials they contact, news stories based on classified documents obtained from Snowden have revealed extensive surveillance of Americans’ telephone and e-mail traffic by the National Security Agency. Numerous Washington-based journalists told me that officials are reluctant to discuss even unclassified information with them because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance make it more difficult for reporters to protect them as sources. “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.
“I think we have a real problem,” said New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane. “Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
At the same time, the journalists told me, designated administration spokesmen are often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries, even when reporters have been sent to them by officials who won’t talk on their own. Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated promise that his administration would be the most open and transparent in American history, reporters and government transparency advocates said they are disappointed by its performance in improving access to the information they need.
In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Leonard Downey discusses freedom of the press and the Obama administration.
I found that these leaks investigations and a program called the Insider Threat Program, instituted since the Bradley Manning leaks, that requires government employees to monitor each other to make sure that they’re not leaking information to anyone, including journalists, to have really frightened government officials. Many, many reporters that I interviewed here in Washington say that government officials are afraid to talk to them. They’re afraid that their telephone conversations and their email exchanges would be monitored. That is to say that investigators could come in later, as they did in several leaks investigations, and use their telephone and email records in order to find the contacts between government officials and reporters. So they’re simply scared to talk to reporters.
And this, this is not good, because-I just heard the president saying that he was concerned about the safety of our troops and our intelligence officers. It’s important that responsible, knowledgeable government officials be able to talk to reporters about these matters, so that, among other things, they can alert reporters to information that might be harmful to national security or harmful to human life, in which case no responsible news organization would publish those.
Transcript can be read here