The day he took office, President Barack Obama promised to head “the most open and transparent” government in U.S. history.
Five years later, American government secrecy is so tight that journalism groups fear the freedom of the press is under threat. Obama is drawing comparisons to the secrecy-obsessed Richard Nixon.
“Press freedom in the United States dramatically deteriorated in 2013,” the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists noted in its annual report on global threats to the free flow of information. The CPJ’s harsh assessment coincided with the release of global press freedom rankings by the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters sans Frontières. It put the United States in 46th place (out of 180), a drop of 13 slots from the previous year.
According to the French group, freedom of information is being sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs. The result: “a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result. This has been the case in the United States. ... Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it.”
That, in the view of the two watchdog groups, encourages authoritarian governments to press on with practices that include censorship, killings, kidnappings, and imprisonment. The U.S. incidents that prompted press freedom advocates to sound the alarm pale in comparison with the brutal treatment of journalists in many other parts of the world. But they do conflict with Obama’s early promises of openness and transparency.
One of the incidents that set alarm bells ringing was the secret seizure of the records of thousands of telephone calls made by reporters and editors of the Associated Press. The Justice Department ordered the move as part of an investigation into who in the government leaked information for an AP story about a plot hatched in Yemen to bomb an airliner bound for the U.S. The phone records led government investigators to an FBI agent. He pleaded guilty of disseminating classified information and was sentenced to 43 months in prison.
In another hunt for a government official who leaked classified information to a journalist, the government seized emails and phone records of a reporter for Fox News, James Rosen and his parents. The operation resulted in the indictment of a State Department contractor Stephen Kim for disclosing information on North Korea’s nuclear program. Accused of having violated the 1917 Espionage Act, he is due to be sentenced in April.
Since 1917, only 10 people have been charged under that act for leaking classified information – seven of them by the Obama administration. They include Private Bradley Manning, the army intelligence analyst who leaked more than 700,000 secret documents from the State Department and the Department of Defense. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency consultant who disclosed details of his agency’s worldwide electronic surveillance program and passed the information to journalists, has also been charged with violating the Espionage Act. Snowden is out of the reach of American courts, living in temporary asylum in Russia.
Whether the espionage act is the right instrument in cases of leaks to journalists will remain a subject of dispute between legal experts for some time to come. But the administration’s crackdown on leakers already has had a chilling effect on the work of journalists, particularly those working on national security.
“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press,” Leonard Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote in a special CPJ report last October. It revealed that government officials suspected of sharing classified information with reporters are subject to lie detector tests and examination of their telephone and email records. A special “Insider Threat” program requires officials to monitor the behavior of their colleagues and report suspected leakers. That program has “created internal surveillance and heightened a degree of paranoia in government, “according to Steven Aftergood, a veteran anti-secrecy campaigner who puts out a weekly newsletter for the Federation of American Scientists.
“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 said, referring to the 1972 abuses of presidential powers that were leaked to journalists and led to the resignation of President Nixon.
In the digital age four decades later, leaking information the government wants to withhold from the public has become much easier, thanks to computers and the Internet. But it is also easier to track the source of a leak, thanks to the NSA’s massive surveillance program. It undermines an essential element in the relationship between journalists and their sources – the promise of confidentiality.
That is bad news for independent journalism in a country that had made press freedom a measure of democracy for much of its history.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.