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The Obama Administration’s War On Leaks Chills The Press And Hurts The Public Interest

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Beginning in the Spring when we started learning about the Obama Justice’s Department’s decision to aggressively pursue leaks of classified information by utilizing methods up to and including supoenaing the telephone records of journalists and news organizations such as the Associated Press, many members of the media have expressed concern about the impact this would have on transparency and freedom of the press. Indeed, these actions have just been one part of what has been characterized as the most aggressive pursuit of leaks by any Justice Department in American history. As more and more reports of the extent to which the Administration was cracking down on whistleblowers became public, reporters started to notice that sources that were once willing to talk to them had suddenly started to clam up for fear of being caught up in a DOJ investigation. Now, as Juliet Ellperin at The Washington Post reports, we’re learning the extent to which the Administration’s aggressive anti-leak campaign has chilled the press, and their sources, and made it harder for the American people to learn what is being done in their name:

The Committee to Protect Journalistspublished its first review of press freedoms in the United States under the Obama administration, and its conclusion is stark: The administration’s aggressive anti-leak policy has intimidated potential sources of information for reporters working in the United States.

The report, written by The Washington Post’s former executive editor Len Downie, along with Committee research associate Sara Rafsky, does not contain any bombshells about how the White House has gone after media outlets’ unauthorized government sources. But it articulates how these efforts — including the Insider Threat Program launched in October 2011 — have made it more difficult for reporters to hold the federal government accountable.

(…)

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.”

“There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders,” said Michael Oreskes, a senior managing editor of the Associated Press, after the government, in an extensive leak investigation, secretly subpoenaed and seized records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 AP reporters in its Washington bureau and
elsewhere. “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.”

And, for those wondering just where the Admnistration’s anti-leak campaign fits in American history, here’s how the report puts it:

“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,” Downie wrote. “The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.”

“When I’m asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s the one in office now,” Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS television news
anchor and chief Washington correspondent, said. “Every administration learns from the previous administration. They become more secretive and put tighter clamps on information. This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that.”

“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times.

Ironically, these are words being spoken by members of what conservatives would call the biased “mainstream media” about what was promised to be the most transparent Administration in history. Instead of transparency, though, we’ve gotten an Administration that is just as restrictive with the flow of information as its predecessors were, and more so. Examples of the impact of this lack of transparency can be seen in things big and small. Obama has been far more parsimonious in granting interviews with national media reporters, for example, and instead has used both the Internet and interviews with local journalists who are far more likely to be friendly to go over their heads. Press conferences have become less and less common in recent years. And, whether it’s about international matters or domestic news, Administration officials have made themselves far less available to the press outside of tightly controlled scenarios.

Leaving aside the transparency issue, though, the aggressive pursuit of “leaks” creates its own problems. Nobody is going to argue that someone who leaks information that is damaging to U.S. national interests or places American troops or civilians in jeopardy should be investigated and prosecuted if necessary. However, in more than one case it appears that the leaked information at issue is more about information that proves to be embarrassing to the United States for one reason or another. This second category seems to describe most of the information that Edward Snowden has leaked regarding National Security Agency activities and, to be honest, a not insignificant portion of the information that Bradley Manning leaked (the State Department internal cables come to mind in that regard.) That doesn’t necessarily excuse illegal behavior, but it does point out the ongoing problem of over-classification, wherein the government stamps “Classified,” “Top Secret,” or what have you on everything possible without any real rational determination that it really ought to be classified.

Even taking the legitimate investigation of leaks, though, there also must be a consideration of the interests of the public in knowing what’s going on with their government. If the Obama Administration’s aggressive prosecution of every single leak, even one’s that can’t legitimately be said to have caused real damage, is creating a chilling effect that prevents reporters from learning information from sources, that is not in the public interest. At some point, the need for secrecy must give way to the public’s right to know, and one need only look back in our own recent history to realize this. But for an anonymous leaker, Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate break-in likely would have gone nowhere if it weren’t for an anonymous leaker, for example. The Obama Administration, however, would’ve spent their time investigation the reporters and subpoenaing Washington Post phone records. That’s far too Nixonian for me.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. RomanCandle says:

    “The most transparent administration in history”.

    Guess they’re going for the Big Lie strategy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Here’s the thing….the press isn’t doing it’s job…so who in the f’ cares?
    And I say that as someone who made a living in Broadcast Journalism for 15 years.
    Given a functioning press…there’s no Shutdown, no Austerity, no Iraq, no Death Panels, no Medicare Part D, no Bush Tax Cuts…the list goes on and on.
    Given a functioning press the entire condition of the Republic changes completely and for the better.
    Let’s see a press that doesn’t look like the stenographers pool…then we can worry about alleged intimidation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 4

  3. Todd says:

    Justice’s Department’s decision to aggressively pursue leaks of classified information

    A person who shares classified information with those who are not cleared to see it is a criminal, not a source.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4

  4. @Todd:

    So Daniel Ellsberg should’ve gone to prison, right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  5. Jeremy R says:

    @Doug:

    Indeed, these actions have just been one part of what has been characterized as the most aggressive pursuit of leaks by any Justice Department in American history.

    A NYT article from back in 2012 when the beltway media and the GOP were going after the admin for supposedly not cracking down on and prosecuting leakers enough:

    Administration Took Accidental Path to Setting Record for Leak Cases

    It is a record that has heartened security hawks while drawing criticism from advocates for whistle-blowing. But a closer look reveals a surprising conclusion: the crackdown has nothing to do with any directive from the president, even though he is now promoting his record as a political asset.

    Instead, it was unplanned, resulting from several leftover investigations from the Bush administration, a proliferation of e-mail and computer audit trails that increasingly can pinpoint reporters’ sources, bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher approach, and a push by the director of national intelligence in 2009 that sharpened the system for tracking disclosures.

    The scattered bureaucratic background of the six cases appears to support the notion that they were not the result of a top-down policy. Two were handled by the Justice Department’s criminal division, while two others were developed by the national security division. A case involving a former C.I.A. officer, John Kiriakou, started with an unrelated inquiry at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and ended up as a leak case by accident. And the case against Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst accused of delivering huge archives of classified documents to WikiLeaks, was a military prosecution that would most likely have been brought under any administration.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. Tillman says:

    Kinda hard to feel bad for the press after watching the schlock that passes for TV news nowadays.

    There’s also no timeframe for when the aggression against leakers started. Was this something from the beginning of Obama’s tenure, or a reflex against something later? I onlu started hearing about a war on leakers post-2010, but my memory is probably faulty.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. Jeremy R says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So Daniel Ellsberg should’ve gone to prison, right?

    He would have if the FBI (illegal evidence gathering) and the prosecution (misconduct) hadn’t spectacularly bungled his case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  8. Tillman says:

    @Doug Mataconis: he still spent time in jail before his trial, didn’t he?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. Todd says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I was 2 years old when the Pentagon Papers were released, so I don’t really have a first-hand frame of reference.

    My short answer though would be yes … Ellsberg clearly broke the law … and from what I’ve read, it sounds like he himself was fully prepared to accept the consequences:

    I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

    Look, I’m not saying that leaks are never morally justifiable (especially in hindsight). Just that I find it a bit ridiculous to criticize the Justice Dept for aggressively investigating what are unequivocally clear violations of the law.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3

  10. al-Ameda says:

    Look, some of this is inevitable because in the digital age access to all manner of communications records is hard to control.

    Also, if the Administration did not pursue the source of these leaks the president would be portrayed as weak on national security. Oh wait, Republicans never stopped portraying Obama as weak on national security. I’m still not sure that what Snowden did was in the public interest either – that remains to be seen.

    By the way, Ellsberg accepted the consequences and was tried. Snowden decided that he wanted none of that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  11. Todd says:

    To be fair, I’ve occasionally had thoughts like this myself:

    .. but it does point out the ongoing problem of over-classification, wherein the government stamps “Classified,” “Top Secret,” or what have you on everything possible without any real rational determination that it really ought to be classified.

    However, just because I don’t understand exactly why a piece of information I’m looking at was marked “Secret”, doesn’t necessarily mean it was “over-classified”.

    As for this:

    As more and more reports of the extent to which the Administration was cracking down on whistleblowers became public, reporters started to notice that sources that were once willing to talk to them had suddenly started to clam up for fear of being caught up in a DOJ investigation.

    Good.

    As far as I’m concerned every time a reporter says or writes the words “classified documents reveal”, the Justice Dept should launch an aggressive investigation. If it’s truly an issue of national importance, then the leaker will have to make a moral choice as to whether or not they’re willing to risk the consequences. But leaks of classified information should never be “routine” … precisely because without having access to other (related) classified information it’s often impossible to tell whether or not the release of any individual piece of classified information is “damaging”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  12. Mikey says:

    the ongoing problem of over-classification, wherein the government stamps “Classified,” “Top Secret,” or what have you on everything possible without any real rational determination that it really ought to be classified.

    This doesn’t really happen, actually. Most classification is derivative, which means there has to be a rational determination based on guidelines issued by the original classifying authority. I know because I do it myself several times a week.

    Now, it does often happen that I have to classify something that would be unclassified if it had, for example, been created on an unclassified information system. But the rules say if it comes off a classified system, it’s classified, even if it’s just a picture of Secret Squirrel I drew in Microsoft Paint. But we don’t go around classifying stuff willy-nilly just because we can.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  13. stonetools says:

    You know, I’m trying to care about this. But in light of the current unpleasantness….
    The Republicans are trying to :

    1. blow up the legislative process and the full faith and credit of the US government.
    2. subvert the voting rights of minorities in many states.
    3. roll back reproductive rights for women
    4.victimize poor people by taking away food stamp and WIC benefits,

    etc., etc.

    Faced with all that, the Administration’s policy on leaks just looks like a piss in a windstorm to me.
    Of the 99 problems I’ve got ,this issue ranks about 178. Still, I guess it’s a good thing someone is keeping an eye on this. It would be nice though, if someone at OTB posted even once about (4).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3

  14. Bob @ youngstown says:

    @stonetools:

    You know, I’m trying to care about this. But in light of the current unpleasantness….,

    My “give a damn is broke”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  15. bill says:

    @C. Clavin: i know, they’re so buddy/buddy with the admin that they can’t get out of their own way- it would make them look like they’re non-partisan or something!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  16. Woody says:

    Absolutely fair criticism of the Obama Administration. Whether done for authoritarian reasons or to shield the Democrats from being criticized on national security, the Obamas are no different from the GWBushes in this area.

    In this respect, the large traditional media has gone right along with it – oh, some bits here and there, but really not much in the way of highlighting these policies.

    Frankly, I don’t believe this has much to do with the sympathies of media owners, editors, anchors, nor reporters. I believe this has everything to do with a confluence of:

    2. Should (When?) another terrorist event take place, the media outlet won’t be ready-made for blame, and:

    1. Endangerment of the large media’s sole remaining asset: access.

    In an industry so poleaxed by new tech, risk aversion is a profound quality. It’s sound strategy — but then, their journalists should cease claiming they remain the traditional adversaries of the powerful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. superdestroyer says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I guess people who leak classified material are criminals only when the executive branch in headed by Democrats.

    It is amazing that pundits and wonks who would have torn either Bush apart for doing this are now defending the Obama Administration. Image had bad the police state will be in the coming one part state when the ruling class has a massive number of defenders and anyone who wants to have a career has to think about what will happen to them if they go against the ruling class.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. anjin-san says:

    Free Secret Squirrel!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    The Obama administration goes after the leaks that they can’t control and that make them look bad. Otherwise, they’re just fine with leaks. Leaks such as the classified details of the Bin Laden raid, the illegal release of confidential tax records for the Koch brothers and the National Organization for Marriage, and other such convenient disclosures.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  20. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    the illegal release of confidential tax records for the Koch brothers

    Gosh, I missed that.
    You got the website for that????

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0