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Obama v. Leakers and the Press:
Bad as Nixon Says Journalism Group

Worse says former Times general counsel

In the wake of the government shutdown and the threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt, a report on the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press and its
reporters went by hardly noticed. The report is a formal statement in support of what the media have contended all along — that the Obama regime’s aggressive actions against press freedom has introduced a climate of fear that inhibits both journalists and sources alike. ”The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration”, says the author, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. The general counsel of The New York Times at the time it published the Pentagon papers, James Goodale, has elsewhere said "President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom".

Accused of leaking classified information to the press, eight current or former government employees have been targeted by the Obama Justice Department in felony criminal prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act, an Act that has been used only three times in all previous U.S. administrations. And now two more have been added: Edward Snowden and another contractor.

More investigations are in progress. We saw in May that the Justice Department had secretly purloined the call records of phone lines belonging to the Associated Press and its reporters seeking the source of a leak about a bomb plot in Yemen. It had also secretly pilfered the phone logs and e-mails of James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News with implications that Rosen had conspired to cause a leak. The department continues to press its case against David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent ofThe New York Times, for refusing to reveal a source, perhaps also as retribution for revealing the Stuxnet virus that caused Iran’s centrifuges to fail.

These prosecutions, coupled with the electronic surveillance of all forms of communication that was revealed by Snowden, have caused sources of even mundane government doings to no longer answer their phones. The knowledge that their every call and e-mail is recorded by an omnipresent government has induced an atmosphere of paranoia that makes government officials fearful of talking to the press on any matter. The pledge to protect sources that reporters regard as sacred is rendered irrelevant when a government has the ability to track down their phone connections and read their e-mail. Scott Shane of The New York Times tells Downie, “Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death… 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.”

The danger of this chilling effect is that we no longer can see inside government, a government, such as this one, that refuses interviews and deflects reporters by sending them to its websites as their only source of information. Increasingly, all we will know is what the government wants us to know.

In fact, the report says, the administration does not leave it to the chill effect to shut the public out. A government employee merely suspected of talking to the press is open to investigation, lie detector tests and scrutiny of e-mail and phone records. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, has ordered that employees of all sixteen intelligence agencies be asked in routine lie detector tests whether they have disclosed any classified information. Much like police re-opening cold case files, a new inspector general overseeing all those agencies is investigating past leak cases that failed to produce Justice Department prosecutions — some 375 unresolved according to a classified report to Clapper — to look for alternative ways to seek redress. The administration has created an “Insider Threat Program” that orders employees throughout the government to monitor fellow workers and report any suspicions.

A rundown of cases and government actions follows, from the report, our earlier articles on this subject, and what has come to light since:

The report was published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). It narrates the multiple actions of the Obama administration against leakers and journalists, the first occurring just three months after the president’s inauguration when a Hebrew linguist under contract with the FBI was sentenced to a 20-month prison term for leaking classified information about Israel to a blogger. No further information was ever divulged.

The worst instance of the oppressive hand of government is the case against Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who provided documents to a Baltimore Sun journalist while at NSA when his report of waste went unheeded by NSA and “a sympathetic congressional investigator, to no avail”. Drake told the reporter of the government’s intention to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to an outside vendor to develop data monitoring software instead of using an internal product that cost far less and was less invasive of privacy. For this attempt to save taxpayer money and conceivable corruption, Drake was looking at 35 years in prison for revealing classified information which, in fact, was not. One of the charges against him was even for “making false statements” by his insisting that the documents were not classified. The case was so weak — the judge called it “unconscionable” that Drake and his family had endured “four years of hell” — that the government settled for a face-saving misdemeanor charge, but Drake had already been fired, had lost his pension and was ruined financially by legal costs.

The longest ongoing case is the Justice Department’s effort to force the Times’ James Risen to identify in court a former CIA officer as the source of leaking a failed CIA effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Twice Pulitzer winner Risen had written of it in a book published seven years ago, yet he is pursued to this day. In July 2011, a federal district court ruled that Risen must testify to the accuracy of his reporting, but could not be compelled to reveal his source. But the Obama administration appealed. In support of Risen, 29 news organizations and groups documented the many “national security and government accountability news stories over the years that could not have been reported by the press without confidential sources”. Yet this July, a three-judge panel of the appeals court of the fourth circuit in Richmond, Va., reversed the earlier decision 2 to 1. Risen has asked that the full appellate court of 15 judges hear the case, vowing to go to jail rather than testify against his source.

In 2009 chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, James Rosen, reported that North Korea was about to conduct another nuclear test. A Justice Department investigation resulted in a 2010 indictment of a State Department analyst named Stephen Jin-Woo Kim for giving classified information to Rosen, again using the most severe weapon in its arsenal, the Espionage Act. Not until this year was it discovered by The Washington Post that the Justice Department had secretly seized Rosen’s phone records and e-mail, and for an extended time, to discover Kim as the source. To win a court’s subpoena to do so, a department affidavit had claimed “probable cause to believe that the reporter has committed or is committing a violation” of the Espionage Act “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator”. The government had crossed a line and was now accusing the press of the crime of committing journalism.

A close rival to Drake’s maltreatment at the hands of the Obama enforcers was the persecution of former CIA agent John Kiriakou. In 2012, five felony counts accused him of disclosing classified information and revealing to journalists the names of two CIA agents that he mistakenly believed were no longer at the agency. Kiriakou was not just another agent. In the midst of a bloody shootout in 2002, he had stormed a house in Pakistan, captured a badly wounded man, and sent a cell phone photo of his ear that identified the captive as Abu Zubaydah, a prize catch in the early moments of the new war against al Qaeda. The Obama government has chosen to forget that he risked his life for his country because Kiriakou since revealed that Zubaydah had been waterboarded. That occurred under the Bush administration, but although Obama has banned torture, he decreed on coming into office that “we should look forward, not backward” and declined to investigate any CIA operatives for violations of the Geneva Conventions and international law. Thus, while the two agents walk free of prosecution, it is Kiriakou who is spending 30 months in prison for revealing their names. CIA boss at the time, David Petraeus, celebrated the sentencing calling it “an important victory for our agency, for our intelligence community, and for the country” against those who “believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers” no matter their conduct.

The case of Army private Bradley (now called Chelsea) Manning is well known. He pleaded guilty of releasing his download of 250,000 State Department dispatches and half a million military incident reports to Wikileaks, but the government again went for the extreme of the Espionage Act. The judge threw out the Act’s maximum charge of “aiding and abetting the enemy” — the government could not come up with a single instance as proof — yet nevertheless sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison. That what Manning released contained a film of Apache helicopters over Baghdad killing a group of armed men and two Reuters correspondents in their midst, as well as material that shed light on a more brutal military than the Pentagon would like us to know of, made the over-sentencing by a military court look vengeful.

Another consideration is the question of just how classified is “classified”? By 2011, over 4 million Americans had security clearances giving them access to classified material and the U.S. had 92 million more supposedly secret items to add to the classified repository that year, says the CPJ report. If everything is secret and so many Americans are in on the secrets, just what is the damage wrought by Chelsea Manning?

A 2012 Associated Press story revealed that the CIA had penetrated an al Qaeda group in Yemen that had developed an underwear bomb to explode aboard a U.S. commercial flight. The AP cooperated by holding the story for five days to protect the covert operation, and when it broke, the White House spoke of it openly, congratulating the CIA. Yet in its own covert operation, the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed and grabbed two months of call records for 20 phone lines and switches of the AP’s company and personal phones that swept up “thousands upon thousands of newsgathering calls” by more than a hundred AP journalists, said AP President Gary Pruitt on CBS News’ “Face the Nation”. The Justice Department only made its action known to AP three months after the sweep. It used the records to extract a guilty plea from a former FBI agent for leaking the bomb plot.

Denied bail, Barrett Brown, a freelance writer whose work has apperarted in a number of national publications, sits in prison awaiting trial on charges that would keep him there for 105 years. The FBI's pileup of dubious counts even include obstruction of justice for being at his mother’s when the initial warrant was served. His real crime, at least in the eyes of the government, is the practice of investigative journalism. Hackers broke into and downloaded the files of two firms, HBGary and Stratfor, that sell to corporations global intelligence but also advice on techniques they can use to spread disinformation and discredit critics and activist groups. The troves were so vast that Brown set up a website named ProjectPM and invited journalists to probe their contents by crowd sourcing. Their discoveries reveal how closely tied is the federal government to such private security firms. The most serious "crime" is that Brown merely posted a link to the material on ProjectPM's private chat channel. Brown is not a hacker and had no part in the break ins, yet his maximum sentence would run ten times as long as that sought for Jeremy Hammond, who is accused of breaking into Stratfor. It is clear that the government's primary attack is not so much concerned with Internet crimes as to send a loud threat to investigative journalists.

Leaks can be criminal but the publication of what is brought into the open has never been. Yet in the government increasingly has seemed to view journalist as complicit. Glenn Greenwald, the online journalist and then Guardian journalist who has for years reported on government secrecy and surveillance and was therefore to whom Edward Snowden went with his cache of NSA material, lives in Brazil and is wary of returning to the United States. He would like to testify before the Senate but not without assurance he would not be arrested. His colleague, film maker Laura Poitras, who has been stopped and questioned repeatedly for hours by the FBI at airports, lives and works in Germany where she needn’t worry that the FBI would show up and commandeer her hard drives. Such is the atmosphere engendered by this administration’s assault not on leakers alone but on the journalists that report their revelations.

The committee’s report was based on interviews with 30 seasoned journalists from the Washington press corps that elicited comments such as that from Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for Scripps newspapers and stations, who said “the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration” in deterring accountability reporting of government agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, “filled by people with ties to target companies…just wouldn’t talk to us”. David Sanger calls it “the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered”. One damaging side effect will be to U.S. policy abroad which encourages other governments to become more transparent and open to press freedoms. They look to our government’s growing hostility to the press and see hypocrisy that they can turn back on us to avoid making changes.

This is a policy from a president who, in his first inaugural address, said, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency”. On his first day in the Oval Office he commented, “For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city”.

1 Comment for “Obama v. Leakers and the Press:
Bad as Nixon Says Journalism Group”

  1. Ken

    This is a tricky situation. While I am a firm believer in freedom of the press, the press should report the news and not make the news like they currently are doing. Having been in the military and having served in Iraq during 2004-2005, I understand the need for secrecy when it comes to dealing with certain countries. In an ideal world everything should be open and on the table, but this is not an ideal world and there are people out there that want to destroy this great country of ours. In my experience working and living in the Middle East, I often heard people make fun of the US government and press for divulging secrets that could be used against the US by the terrorists. They also commented on how our politicians accuse everybody else of being corrupt, when they themselves sell themselves to businesses and special interests groups in order to remain in office. However, almost everyone I talked to and worked with talked about how they liked average Americans due to their kindness and generosity.

    There has to be a balance between what is reported and what is not reported for the sake of security in this country. The press is on one side of the fence wanted to expose everything, probably due to the fact the media is controlled by Jewish interests and they are trying to prevent another holocaust situation–however, many of Jewish friends are fearful this this type of approach may in fact lead to such an event. The government is on the other side of the fence and has an obligation to protect the country and its people. However, all too often they use this as an excuse to, in fact, wield power beyond what is called for to further their own agendas and satisfy their deficient egos. Therefore, we do need a press that digs into the facts and exposes government wrongdoing(Watergate being a good example), which is common amongst the upper echelon of the government. However, the press must exercise professionalism and good judgment.

    As far as President Obama’s statement about openness in government, he is simply playing politics and therefore the statement has no credibility. I worked for the government for ten years and I know the mentality of most government employees and their superiors (appointed by the President). and it is depressing to say the least. Most care nothing for the people who pay their salaries (you and I) and are only interested in their own welfare, When you work hard and try to look after the best interests of the public you are ridiculed, cast as a non-team player, and are passed over for promotions. The reality is that the government bureaucracy is bigger than the President and his powers are limited and he should not deceive the public about his powers.

    At this point I say neither party is to be trusted, which is a sad state of affairs for the American Public. Politics and the press are all about two things, ratings and money. Therefore, neither the President nor Congress nor the Supreme Court nor the Press are to trusted. All have subverted the Constitution to serve their own agendas.

    The American Public needs to become more active and hold both our politicians and the press accountable. History is repeating itself, as it always does, unfortunately. In the past we had Aristocrats who accrued wealth, lands, and subservience. Today we have a Corporate Aristocracy and Political Elite that are doing the same.

    Having lived and worked in many different countries over the past 30 years, I can say with some authority that this is the greatest country in the world when it comes to freedom and opportunity. The American people are among the most compassionate and tolerant people in the world. However, the Corporate Aristocracy (yes the Carnegies, Rockefellers, Rothchilds, etc.) and the Political Elite are trying to destroy all this for their own financial and power gains. The American Public needs to take a stand, since without our support and tax dollars our government would not exist.

    In short, the American public should trust neither the Government or the Press. They must learn to trust one another and take matters into their own hands to keep this country viable and a leader of the free world.

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