Leonard Downie Jr. is a vice president at large of The Washington Post, where he served as executive editor from 1991 to 2008. He is the Weil family professor of journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and a board member of the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors.
For the past five years, beginning with his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama has promised that his government would be the most open and transparent in American history. Recently, while stating that he makes “no apologies” for his Justice Department’s investigations into suspected leaks of classified information, the president added that “a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function.” Then, in his National Defense University speech Thursday, Obama said he was “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.”
But the Obama administration’s steadily escalating war on leaks, the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration, has disregarded the First Amendment and intimidated a growing number of government sources of information — most of which would not be classified — that is vital for journalists to hold leaders accountable. The White House has tightened its control over officials’ contacts with the news media, and federal agencies have increasingly denied Freedom of Information Act requests on the grounds of national security or protection of internal deliberations.
The secret and far-reaching subpoena and seizure of two months of records for 20 Associated Press phone lines and switchboards — used by more than 100 AP reporters in three news bureaus and the House of Representatives — is especially chilling for journalists and their sources. The effort was reportedly part of a Justice Department and federal grand jury investigation of an AP story from May 7, 2012, revealing the CIA’s success in penetrating a Yemen-based al-Qaeda group that had developed an “underwear bomb” to detonate aboard U.S.-bound aircraft.
At the request of the White House and the CIA, the AP held the story for five days to protect an ongoing intelligence operation. The AP’s discussions with government officials were similar to many I participated in with several administrations during my years as executive editor of The Washington Post, when I was weighing how to publish significant stories about national security without causing unnecessary harm.
After the AP story appeared, Obama administration officials spoke freely about the operation. But when Republicans accused the administration of leaking classified information to boost the president’s counterterrorism resume in an election year, the Justice Department began its wide-ranging investigation to find the story’s unnamed sources — including secretly subpoenaing and seizing the AP’s call logs earlier this year. Only after Justice finally notified the news agency of the seizure this month and the controversy exploded did Attorney General Eric Holder say that the AP story resulted from “a very, very serious leak” that “put the American people at risk.” But the administration has not explained how.
Such investigations are not unusual, especially in national security cases, but they have proliferated in the Obama administration. Six government officials have been prosecuted since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Actfor unauthorized disclosures of classified information, twice as many as in all previous U.S. administrations combined. One case involved a classic whistleblower: a senior executive of the National Security Agency who had told the Baltimore Sun about expensive government waste on digital data-gathering technology.