The Obama administration is waging a systematic war on freedom of the press and freedom of speech that is creating a climate of fear in Washington and the federal government, according to a former editor of The Washington Post in a report prepared for a distinguished international journalists’ group.
“The war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in a special report for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Downie describes an atmosphere that seems little like a democracy.
“Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and email records,” Downie alleged. His conclusions are based upon interviews with 30 mostly liberal journalists that he and his colleague Sara Rafsky conducted.
What liberal journalists are saying about the Obama administration
The interviews found that not only are federal employees afraid to speak to the press, but that many Washington journalists are now afraid to do their job. Leonard Downie Jr. worked at The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal and said there is a paranoid atmosphere inside the Obama White House.
“This is the most closed, control freak administration, I’ve ever covered,” New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger said.
“I think we have a real problem,” said Scott Shane, a national security reporter for The New York Times. “Most people are deterred by those leaks investigations. They’re scared to death.”
“This was supposed to be the administration of unprecedented transparency,” New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in a column. “Instead it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”
“There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders,” Michael Oreskes, a senior editor of the Associated Press said.
“It serves to shield and obscure the business of government from necessary accountability,” Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran said of the Obama administration’s attacks on freedom of the press.
How the Obama Administration is Undermining Freedom of the Press
Leonard Downie’s report details the Obama administration actions that are undermining freedom of the press and the First Amendment. The allegations are disturbing.
“Journalists and transparency experts say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” Downie wrote in his introduction. He goes on to list policies that create those effects. The policies include:
- “The Insider Threat Program,” an organized witch hunt designed to detect and punish those who leak anything to the press. The program uses tactics reminiscent of McCarthyism and encourages government employees to rat on whistleblowers.
- The use of the 1917 Espionage Act to launch criminal prosecutions against whistleblowers. No president has used this act more than Obama; eight people have been charged under it since 2009, including Edward Snowden. Previous administrations dating back to Woodrow Wilson prosecuted a total of three people. That time period covered World War I, World War II and the Cold War.
- The use of subpoenas to seize the email and telephone records of reporters in an attempt to identify leakers. One of the subpoenas accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of being an “aider and abettor” of terrorism and a “conspirator.”
- The use of criminal prosecutions and federal law enforcement to force reporters to turn in whistleblowers. In one case New York Times reporter James Risen was ordered to testify against a source or go to jail.
- Many reporters are now afraid to use electronic communications to contact sources because of a fear of surveillance. The NSA programs exposed by Edward Snowden have convinced many journalists that they are under surveillance.
“I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or emails,” R. Jeffrey Smith a journalist that works with the Center for Public Integrity, said.
- The administration regularly ignores reporters and disseminates information directly to the public through social media, YouTube videos and websites. Most of the information released through those sources is sophisticated propaganda designed to make the administration look good.
The worst part of the Obama administration’s war on the press is that its tactics are reminiscent of authoritarian regimes the administration likes to attack for violating human rights. Financial Times correspondent Richard McGregor is worried that Obama’s policies will encourage regimes like that in China and other democracies to take similar actions against the press.