‘Most aggressive since Nixon’: Report details Obama’s assault on free press

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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A brutal report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) blasted the Obama administration, calling the White House’s efforts to control information the harshest since the Nixon administration.

The report is something of a first for CPJ, which typically focuses on oppressed journalists in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Written by Leonard Downie Jr., the former editor of The Washington Post, the report contradicts the Obama administration’s insistence that it is “the most transparent administration in history.”

“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” he wrote. “The 30 experienced Washington journalists . . . whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.”

Downie explains that the Obama administration’s obsession with controlling the narrative combines with reporter surveillance and its unprecedented prosecution of leakers to produce anxiety and inaction within the press corp.

The report notes that from the moment he took office, Obama has tried to present his own version of events by “using the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.”

Meanwhile, reporters are increasingly shut out. “There is no access to the daily business in the Oval Office, who the president meets with, who he gets advice from,” said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton. “Open dialogue with the public without filters is good,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, “but if it is used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.”

The administration’s tight-fisted grip on information is made tighter through Obama’s relentless prosecution of leakers. While the White House offers whistleblower protections for leakers who expose waste, fraud or abuse, they mercilessly pursue those that reveal “questionable government policies and actions, even if they could be illegal or unconstitutional.”

By reviving the 1917 Espionage Act and creating the still-developing Insider Threat Program, the Obama administration has prosecuted six government employees and two contractors for leaking to the press. Only three such prosecutions have occurred in all previous presidential administrations.

“Prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act is almost their only tool,” said Lucy Dalglish, former director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “They’re sending a message. It’s a strategy.” Former CIA director Michael Hayden agreed, calling the Insider Threat Program “designed to chill any conversation whatsoever.”

Sources have dried up as official Washington comes under what Downie calls a “climate of fear.” Cameron Barr, The Washington Post’s national news editor, told Downie that “reporters are interviewing sources through intermediaries now, so the sources can truthfully answer on polygraphs that they didn’t talk to reporters.”

That fear extends to journalists, as well, following last summer’s revelations of NSA surveillance programs and the seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department. Downie could not recall a precedent for the seizures, and noted that prior administrations were able to successfully negotiate similar requests without compromising newsgathering independence.

Revelations of NSA snooping only deepened journalistic anxiety. “There is greater concern that their communications are being monitored — office phones, e-mail systems,” said Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran. “People think they’re looking at reporters’ records,” said Dana Priest, another Post reporter. “I’m writing few things in e-mail. I’m even afraid to tell officials what I want to talk about because it’s all going into one giant computer.”

The CPJ released a number of recommendations to preserve America’s free press, including a shield law guaranteeing immunity for reporters in leak investigations, increased transparency over NSA activities and the halt of espionage prosecutions against government officials who leaked to journalists.

If these recommendations go unheeded, the report warns it may lead to unintended consequences. “Closing doors to reporters is hurting themselves,” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward told Downie, “because less responsible news organizations will publish or broadcast whatever they want.”

“In the end, it does not hurt the press; it can damage national security.”

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Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.