High-risk journalism

October 17, 2013

Nicole Colson examines a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists that details the Obama administration's unprecedented attack on freedom of the press.

HERE'S A pop quiz: Name the worst president in the modern era when it comes to protecting press freedom.

Not, it's not George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Not even Richard Nixon.

It's Democrat and former constitutional law professor Barack Obama, according to a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) Leonard Downie Jr. and Sara Rafsky. The Obama administration, which came into office promising to be the most transparent and open in history, has been precisely the opposite, according to the CPJ--cracking down on the public's right to know and on those who would dare to expose the government's illegal infringement on civil liberties.

According to "The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak Investigations and Surveillance in Post-9/11 America":

In the Obama administration's Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. 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 e-mail records. An "Insider Threat Program" being implemented in every government department requires all federal employees to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald (Gage Skidmore)

IN TOTAL, eight people--six government employees and two contractors--have now been charged by the Obama administration with felonies under the Espionage Act as a result of leaking information to the press in their capacity as whistle-blowers. In all previous presidential administrations combined, only three people faced such charges.

Among the eight is Private Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning)--who provided a mass of information to the WikiLeaks website, including a video showing U.S. soldiers engaged in war crimes and documents detailing U.S. torture and illegal spying.

Another is former National Security Agency (NSA) contract employee Edward Snowden, who, with the help of journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, exposed the vast spying operations by the U.S. government against ordinary citizens and the obedient attitude of Internet and telecommunications companies.

There's former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was indicted last year on five felony counts for disclosing classified information, including the names of two CIA agents, to journalist Matthew Cole and New York Times reporter Scott Shane, who were both writing about the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.

Many believe Kiriakou was targeted for publicly discussing the "enhanced-interrogation techniques" (waterboarding) used on "high-value" detainees in the U.S. war on terror--and describing such techniques as "torture."

For the "crime" of exposing U.S. war crimes and other misdeeds, Chelsea Manning can now expect to serve more than 30 years in a military prison--after already enduring years in prison, which included months of dehumanizing torture conditions. Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Meanwhile, for all intents and purposes, former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden remains trapped in Russia, where he was forced to flee to evade prosecution by the Obama administration.

Without Snowden, however, the U.S. public wouldn't know about mass government surveillance programs that include the collection of data on every phone call and many Internet communications made by Americans.

According to Glenn Greenwald, the most damning stories from Snowden's leak of National Security Agency (NSA) files are still to come. "The archives are so complex and so deep and so shocking," Greenwald told the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, "that I think the most shocking and significant stories are the ones we are still working on, and have yet to publish."

This week, the Washington Post reported that documents provided by Snowden show the NSA has been:

harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans...

The collection program, which has not been disclosed before, intercepts e-mail address books and "buddy lists" from instant messaging services as they move across global data links. Online services often transmit those contacts when a user logs on, composes a message, or synchronizes a computer or mobile device with information stored on remote servers.

More than 500,000 email address books are collected on any given day from companies that include Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Hotmail, according to the Post--and at least some of those were collected for the U.S. by Australia's intelligence agency, according to a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

THE OBAMA administration claims such vast data collection is a necessary part of the fight in the "war on terror." And a president who came to office with a promise of "transparency" has been actively pursuing and even threatening journalists. Downie and Rafsky explained the chilling impact:

Numerous Washington-based journalists told me that officials are reluctant to discuss even unclassified information with them because they fear that leak investigations and government surveillance make it more difficult for reporters to protect them as sources. "I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails," said veteran national security journalist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity, an influential nonprofit government accountability news organization in Washington. "It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts," he said.

The CPJ report discusses the administration's "Insider Threat Program," first reported on by McClatchy newspapers earlier this year, which has "'created internal surveillance, heightened a degree of paranoia in government and made people conscious of contacts with the public, advocates, and the press,' said a prominent transparency advocate, Steven Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington," according to CPJ.

An executive order from Obama, created after the WikiLeaks disclosures, established the task force to develop within a year "a government-wide program for insider threat detection and prevention to improve protection and reduce potential vulnerabilities of classified information from exploitation, compromise, or other unauthorized disclosure."

The explicit aim of the program is to prevent any more revelations like those from Manning, Snowden, Kiriakou or other government whistle-blowers. The effect goes far beyond whistle-blowers, however, chilling even basic interaction between government employees and the press. It is essentially an attempt to lock any damning information about government actions behind a wall.

As the CPJ report notes, the attack on whistle-blowers and press freedom escalated substantially after the September 11 attacks. But the ramping up of such attacks under the Obama administration should put to rest the lie that Republicans are solely responsible for the shredding of our civil liberties.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed and seized records for Associated Press phone lines and switchboards from 2012. Thousands of calls by some 100 journalists were taken as part of an investigation into leaks about CIA operations in Yemen.

It was later revealed that Fox News correspondent James Rosen was similarly targeted, and had his phone records seized by the Justice Department as part of an investigation into leaks by Stephen Jin-Woo Kim about U.S. monitoring of North Korea's nuclear program.

UNFORTUNATELY, MUCH of the mainstream media, particularly in the U.S., has refused to challenge the Obama administration's war on whistle-blowers and on their own profession.

On the contrary, mainstream media figures like Meet the Press' David Gregory and Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer have repeatedly attack whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald.

Instead of watchdogs against abuses of power, these media figures frequently act as lapdogs--unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them or jeopardize their relationships with the Obama administration or other government figures. For daring to question those in the administration and take a firm stand on the side of civil liberties, Snowden, Greenwald and others are attacked, even by "liberal" outlets like the New York Times--whose former editor Bill Keller recently suggested that the Obama administration cut a deal with Edward Snowden in order to figure out how to help the U.S. "better keep our legitimate secrets."

Instead of suggesting ways for the U.S. to "keep legitimate secrets," Keller could better use his position to create a public discussion about what the Obama administration considers a "legitimate secret," and why.

As Glenn Greenwald recently noted, Chris Blackhurst, the former editor of Britain's Independent, explained in a recent column that he would never have published the Snowden revelations. "If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?", Blackhurst wrote.

"Most people, let alone journalists, would be far too embarrassed to admit they harbor such subservient, obsequious sentiments. It's one thing to accord some deference or presumption of good will to political officials, but the desire to demonstrate some minimal human dignity, by itself, would preclude most people from publicly confessing that they have willingly sacrificed all of their independent judgment and autonomy to the superior, secret decrees of those who wield the greatest power," Greenwald commented in response.

As the CPJ report notes, the Obama administration shows no signs of slowing its attack on whistle-blowers and journalists:

An Associated Press analysis, published in March, found that "more often than it ever has," the Obama administration "cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold the material" and "frequently cited the need to protect national security and internal deliberations." Some of the administration's new government information policies also contain vague privacy exceptions that could be used to hide records crucial to accountability reporting about such subjects as health care payments, government subsidies, workplace accidents, or detentions of terrorism suspects.

In the face of this, the bravery of whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, is more important than ever.

As Greenwald recently explained to a Brazilian congressional panel investigating the allegations that Washington spied on Brazilian oil company Petrobras: "We are undertaking high-risk journalism. We shall continue doing so until we publish the last document I have."

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