WASHINGTON, D.C. —
U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but has instead created an atmosphere hindering information sought by journalists.
These are the opening words of a report — The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America — published Thursday by the Committee to Protect journalists, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to defending journalists worldwide.
The 29-page report was drafted by Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor for The Washington Post, with reporting by Sara Rafsky.
“Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” Downie stated. “Aggressive prosecution of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”
In June, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters the president believes the nation needs to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and interests in privacy. Carney said upon coming into office the president and his team assessed, and in some cases enhanced oversight, that “the balance is appropriately struck.”
“But it is an absolutely appropriate topic for debate both now and going into the future, because the kinds of technological advances we’ve seen when it comes to communication will only continue,” Carney said.
In recent months, media outlets have reported on several incidents regarding the press and the Obama administration.
Downie says an “Insider Threat Program” being implemented in every Obama administration department requires all federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of information by monitoring their activities. It was first detailed by McClatchy newspapers’ Washington bureau in June.
In May, The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of its reporters and editors in a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.
The records listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the AP’s main number in the U.S. House of Representatives’ press gallery, the AP reported.
More than 100 journalists, covering a wide array of stories about government and other matters, work in offices where phone records were targeted.
Since 2009, six government employees and two contractors, including Edward Snowden, have faced felony criminal prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press, Downie reports. That compares to a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations combined.
Other criminal investigations into leaks continue: A Fox News reporter was accused of aiding a leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job. Then there were the revelations about snooping by the National Security Agency.
Journalists told Downie they worry about government access to digital trails and the effects of leak investigations on sources. Administration spokesmen are often unresponsive or hostile to press inquiries after officials who won’t talk on their own have been sent to the spokesmen, Downie reports.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” David Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times told Downie.
Reporters told Downie their FOIA requests too often faced denials, delays, unresponsiveness or demands for exorbitant fees; cooperation or obstruction varied widely depending on the federal agency.
Downie urged the White House and the Justice Department to enforce a directive signed by the president on his first day in office regarding prompt response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Closing doors to reporters is hurting themselves because less responsible news organizations will publish or broadcast whatever they want,” Washington Post reporter and author Bob Woodward told Downie.
Recommendations in the report included: Keeping fewer secrets, improving the FOIA process, being open and honest about government surveillance and building better bridges with the press.
In a closing, Downie stated whether or not the president lives up to his promise regarding transparency could have a lasting impact on federal government accountability and on America’s standing as an international example of press freedom.
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