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2013-10-11

Worse Than Nixon? Committee to Protect Journalists Warns About Obama Crackdown on Press Freedom

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In its first report on press freedom in the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists warns President Obama has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for both reporters and their government sources. Among the cases it details: Six government employees — plus two contractors, including Edward Snowden — have faced felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press, compared with just three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. The Department of Justice has also secretly subpoenaed and seized Associated Press reporters’ phone logs and emails, and New York Times reporter James Risen was ordered to testify against a former CIA officer who provided leaked information to him, or go to jail. We speak to the report’s author, Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post. He spoke with dozens of journalists who told him officials are "reluctant to discuss even unclassified information … because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance make it more difficult for reporters to protect them as sources."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we shift gears and turn to the first report on press freedom in the United States ever published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually advocates for press freedoms overseas—and the news isn’t good. Titled "The Obama Administration and the Press," the report looks at the many ways President Obama has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for both reporters and their sources. Among the cases it details, six government employees, plus two contractors, including Edward Snowden, have faced felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press, compared with just three prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. The Department of Justice has also secretly subpoenaed and seized Associated Press reporters’ phone logs and emails, and New York Times reporter James Risen was ordered to testify against a former CIA officer who provided leaked information to him, or Risen would go to jail.

The new report is written by Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post. He spoke with dozens of journalists who told him officials are, quote, "reluctant to discuss even unclassified information ... because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance make it more difficult for reporters to protect them as sources." It comes as Glenn Greenwald, columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper who is based in Brazil, and his partner David Miranda testified before a Brazilian Senate committee this week about his work with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who remains in Russia while he’s wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges.

GLENN GREENWALD: [translated] In reality, there is a war against journalism and the process of transparency. And this war is with the government of the United States and its closest allies, mostly the British government. They are doing a lot of things against the freedom of press to hide this whole report, which generally the United States or English government say these things only happen in China or Iran or Russia, but now we can see that the United States government is doing these exact same things.

AMY GOODMAN: That of course wasn’t Glenn Greenwald’s voice that you mainly heard, because Glenn Greenwald was speaking Portuguese in the Brazilian hearing. This comes as the Obama administration seized the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen as part of probes into the leaking of classified information. In May, President Obama said he made no apologies for seeking to crack down on leaks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post, author of this new report, "The Obama Administration and the Press," commissioned by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Leonard Downie’s 44 years at The Washington Post included overseeing much of its Watergate coverage. During the 17 years he served as executive editor, the paper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes. He’s now is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

Leonard Downie, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about your findings, this comprehensive, first-time report of the Committee to Protect Journalists on press freedom here in the United States.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: I found that these leaks investigations and a program called the Insider Threat Program, instituted since the Bradley Manning leaks, that requires government employees to monitor each other to make sure that they’re not leaking information to anyone, including journalists, to have really frightened government officials. Many, many reporters that I interviewed here in Washington say that government officials are afraid to talk to them. They’re afraid that their telephone conversations and their email exchanges would be monitored. That is to say that investigators could come in later, as they did in several leaks investigations, and use their telephone and email records in order to find the contacts between government officials and reporters. So they’re simply scared to talk to reporters.

And this, this is not good, because—I just heard the president saying that he was concerned about the safety of our troops and our intelligence officers. It’s important that responsible, knowledgeable government officials be able to talk to reporters about these matters, so that, among other things, they can alert reporters to information that might be harmful to national security or harmful to human life, in which case no responsible news organization would publish those.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: I guess I was most surprised by—you know, I’m used to reporters complaining about access, because we all want more access than we can get all the time, and that’s understandable. But I was surprised by the pervasiveness of this administration’s control over the—over information, by how much it discourages leaks of all kinds and not just classified information leaks, and how much it does not allow for unauthorized contacts with the press, if it can help it, and how much it uses social media and other digital means—websites and so on—to put out a lot of its own story, a lot of its own information, that makes the administration look good, while restricting access to information that would hold the government accountable for its actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Downie, for this report you spoke with New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane—we also—

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —just interviewed him—who said sources are now scared to death to even talk about unclassified, everyday issues. He said, quote, "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," Shane said. "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." That was Scott Shane of The New York Times. Leonard Downie?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes, that’s exactly what he told me. And this is exactly what I heard from dozens of reporters around Washington, from news executives, and even from some former government officials, who are concerned, as I said earlier, about the fact that there—that it’s important that knowledgeable reporters, like Scott Shane, who know so much about national security, and his editors, who can make good decisions about what to publish—if they’re cut off from this information, it’s important for them—but here’s a good example. Look at how much the administration has revealed now about the NSA surveillance program, only because Edward Snowden provided that information to the press. The press published it, and that forced the administration to make public information about this program that Americans ought to have so that they can make decisions about it.

AMY GOODMAN: In May, reporters asked President Obama whether his administration’s probe of the emails of Associated Press reporters and editors’ emails recalls President Richard Nixon’s targeting of the press when it attempted to block The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War leaked to the paper by whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. This is part of the exchange.

REPORTER: I’d like to ask you about the Justice Department.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

REPORTER: Do you believe that the seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists this week, or before, that was announced recently this week, was an overreach? And do you still have full confidence in your attorney general? Should we interpret yesterday’s renewed interest by the White House in a media shield law as a response to that? And more broadly, how do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week’s scandals to those that happened under the Nixon administration?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, yeah, I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons. And you can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions. My concern is making sure that if there’s a problem in the government, that we fix it. That’s my responsibility. And that’s what we’re going to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is White House spokesperson Jay Carney questioned in May about the AP spying scandal and the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistleblowers.

REPORTER: This administration in the last four years has prosecuted twice as many leakers as every previous administration combined. How does that reflect balance?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I would say that the president is committed to the press’s ability to pursue information, to defending the First Amendment. He is also, as a citizen and as commander-in-chief, committed to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information to be—that can do harm to our national security interests or to endanger individuals, to be—to be leaked. And that is a balance that has to be struck.

REPORTER: But the record of the last four years does not suggest balance.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: That’s your opinion, Ari, but I—

REPORTER: No, it’s twice as many prosecutions as all previous administrations combined. That’s not even close.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I understand that there—you know, that there were ongoing investigations that preceded this administration. But I—again, I’m not going to—I can tell you what the president’s views are, and the president’s views include his defense of the First Amendment, his belief that journalists ought to be able to pursue information in an unfettered way. And that is backed up by his support for a media shield law, both as senator and as president. And it is also true that he believes a balance needs to be struck between those goals and the need to protect classified information.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can respond to both of those, Leonard Downie? Of course, that’s White House spokesperson Jay Carney—

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —who is the former Washington bureau chief of Time magazine.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Yes, and I interviewed him for my report, and he stated responses like those you just heard.

First, there’s too much that’s classified. The president himself has said repeatedly in the past that too much information is classified. It’s not just information that might be harmful to national security or human life; it’s just lots and lots, millions and millions and millions of documents and pieces of information that are classified that shouldn’t be. Obviously that preceded this administration, but it’s not improved during this administration.

The president promised to have the most transparent government in American history. He promised to reduce overclassification. He promised to make it easier to obtain government information through the Freedom of Information Act. And so far, none of these promises have been kept. So, part of the reason for why I agreed to do this report for the Committee to Protect Journalists is I would like to alert the president to the fact that this is one of the most—this is one of the first promises he made. He signed presidential directives about open government his first day in office. These are not being carried out by his administration. He still has time for his legacy to make good on these promises.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Justice Department acknowledging seizing the work, home and cellphone records used by almost a hundred reporters and editors at the Associated Press. The phones targeted included the general AP office numbers in New York City, in Washington, D.C., in Hartford, Connecticut, and the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, which of course means that many other reporters were speaking on it—the action coming as part of a probe into leaks behind an AP story on a U.S. intelligence operation.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: This has had a chilling effect on both government officials, government sources and journalists. And it’s not the only one of these investigations in which such records were secretly subpoenaed and seized—half of these eight investigations that took place. So, reporters and sources know that records have been seized in the past, and as a result, reporters told me, people are afraid to talk to them on the telephone, they’re afraid to engage in email traffic with them, and the reporters themselves are concerned about putting their sources at risk by conducting telephone and email conversations with them, which means we have to go back to secret meetings, like the—you know, the underground garage meetings with Deep Throat during Watergate. Reporters are trying to figure out if they can encrypt their email, but we now know that NSA is trying to figure out how to—how to get past the encryption. So, reporters are very, very worried about putting their sources in jeopardy merely by trying to talk to them about the people’s business.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the Insider Threat Program?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: The Insider Threat Program, which was first described by the McClatchy Newspapers last summer, is a presidential order that came after the Manning case. The government was very, very concerned about other Mannings somewhere in the government, because so much—so much of this information is digitally available to clever people. And so, they instituted this program where they ordered every government department and every agency to order their employees—and there are directives that have gone out, which McClatchy Newspapers obtained, that instruct employees to monitor each other to make sure that there are no leaks of classified information. And it’s been interpreted by some of the agencies, as you look at their plans, to go beyond classified information to information about anything that’s going on in that agency.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think, overall, Leonard Downie, the press have been impacted? I mean, going back to this point that the Committee to Protect Journalists has never issued a report on press freedom in the United States before.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: Correct, correct. This has had a chilling effect on not just coverage of national security, but coverage of the government generally. Along with the other policies of the administration, in which they have exercised such tight control over their message, over their information, it makes it very difficult for the press to hold the administration accountable for its actions. Now, that doesn’t mean reporters are going to stop. And even though they complain to me, they’re still out there working aggressively, and there still is good coverage of a lot of things. But we don’t know what we’ve not been able to find out about how this government works, in order to hold it accountable to the American people. If the president said he wants to be able to have his government held accountable to the American people, then I think they should change their policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is President Obama doing this? I mean, you hear the questions of Jay Carney. I mean, under the Obama administration, more than twice the number of journalists and sources have been gone after, prosecuted, than all administrations combined.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: There are two different patterns here. One began with 9/11, and in fairness to the administration, the PATRIOT Act was passed under George Bush. Some of these leaks investigations did begin during the Bush administration, as Jay Carney said, although then they reached fruition and with prosecutions under the Obama administration. And new investigations began, like the one with the Associated Press and Fox News that you’ve talked about. So, that atmosphere of being concerned about national security leaks and pressure from the intelligence community to stop these kinds of leaks, it began during the Bush administration, has accelerated during the Obama administration.

At the same time, the Obama people discovered during the two election campaigns that very tight message control, in which they try to get their news out to people, news that they generate out to Americans, but make it more difficult for reporters to hold them accountable, worked very well during the campaigns. And they’ve been much more successful than previous administrations at carrying that control over into the workings of government itself once they took office. Other administrations have tried this, but they’ve not been as successful at it.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Downie—

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: And the third—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: I’m sorry. And the third factor is, is obviously, you know, the new digital world we live in, which gives them much more levers for controlling the message than we’ve ever had before.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to be done, very quickly?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR.: The president needs to keep his promises. He needs to reduce overclassification. He needs to make it easier to obtain information through the Freedom of Information Act. He needs to put the word out that government officials should be allowed to talk to the press unless it’s something that’s going to be harmful to national security.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Downie, I want to thank you for being with us, former executive editor of The Washington Post, author of the new report, "The Obama Administration and the Press," commissioned by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the first time the CPJ has looked at freedom of the press in the United States. We’ll link to that report at democracynow.org. We’ll be back in a minute.

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