The Washington Post

How Obama’s anti-leak policy has chilled the free press

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Committee to Protect Journalists published its first review of press freedoms in the United States under the Obama administration, and its conclusion is stark: The administration's aggressive anti-leak policy has intimidated potential sources of information for reporters working in the United States.

The report, written by The Washington Post's former executive editor Len Downie, along with Committee research associate Sara Rafsky, does not contain any bombshells about how the White House has gone after media outlets' unauthorized government sources. But it articulates how these efforts — including the Insider Threat Program launched in October 2011 — have made it more difficult for reporters to hold the federal government accountable.

And the most powerful aspects of the report are the comments made by journalists — and even some administration officials — themselves. Here is a sampling:

The impact of leak prosecutions

“I think we have a real problem,” said New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane. “Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They're scared to death. 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. 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.”

“There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders,” said Michael Oreskes, a senior managing editor of the Associated Press, after the government, in an extensive leak investigation, secretly subpoenaed and seized records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 AP reporters in its Washington bureau and
elsewhere. “Sources are more jittery and more standoffish, not just in national security reporting. A lot of skittishness is at the more routine level. The Obama administration has been extremely controlling and extremely resistant to journalistic intervention. There’s a mind-set and approach that holds journalists at a greater distance.”

How the Obama administration compares to previous administrations

"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 wrote. "The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent."

“When I'm asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s the one in office now,” Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS television news
anchor and chief Washington correspondent, said. “Every administration learns from the previous administration. They become more secretive and put tighter clamps on information. This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that.”

“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times.

The Insider Threat Program

Michael Hayden, who directed the National Security Agency and then the Central Intelligence Agency during the George W. Bush administration, said that the unfolding Insider Threat Program “is designed to chill any conversation whatsoever.”

How the White House views leaks

“The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney

“We make an effort to communicate about national security issues in on-the-record and background briefings by sanctioned sources,” said deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “And we still see investigative reporting from non-sanctioned sources with lots of unclassified information and some sensitive information.”

How the White House uses social media to get around the press

“There are new means available to us because of changes in the media, and we'd
be guilty of malpractice if we didn’t use them,” said a senior White House official who asked not to be identified, noting that the White House often communicated
brief news announcements on Twitter to its more than 4 million followers.

 What Len Downie really thinks

"President Obama is faced with many challenges during his remaining years in office, the outcome of which will help shape his legacy. Among them is fulfilling his very first promise — to make his administration the most transparent in American history amid national security concerns, economic uncertainty, political polarization and rapid technological
change. Whether he succeeds could have a lasting impact on U.S. government accountability and on the standing of America as an international example of press freedom."

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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