WASHINGTON -- First, there was the news that the Justice Department had secretly seized telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press. A week later, reports that the department had investigated a Fox News reporter as a potential criminal for doing his job.
Those actions – and possibly more – by President Barack Obama’s administration are part of an unprecedented crackdown on classified national security leaks.
And that has led journalists, First Amendment scholars and groups that advocate for government transparency to question how much the White House values a free and open press.
“The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct,” according to a recent letter to Attorney General Eric Holder from 52 media organizations, including McClatchy.
Obama said he is trying to strike a balance between the media’s First Amendment protections against government censorship and the United States’ national security interests.
“As commander-in-chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information,” Obama said in a major counterterrorism speech Thursday.
His administration has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act, bringing six cases against employees for leaks compared with only three known previous cases.
Among them, the government has been trying to force New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his sources involving a failed CIA effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
In another, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning pleaded guilty to leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group. And now, First Amendment advocates are anxiously awaiting the government’s decision on whether to prosecute WikiLeaks.
“Despite longtime warnings that the Obama administration’s ‘war on whistleblowers’ had become a ‘war on journalists’. . . the U.S. media has obviously not taken the full First Amendment implications seriously enough,” said Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and whistleblower who is affiliated with the liberal Institute for Public Accuracy, a nonprofit group that tries to promote alternative views on a variety of subjects.
At the White House, tensions between reporters and administration officials have been brewing for months. Obama’s aides have always revealed little information to the media, often choosing instead to deliver their own news through government-sponsored websites, blogs and Twitter accounts that include government photos and video. In recent weeks, the atmosphere has gotten worse as reporters have begun to wonder how to protect themselves against possible government intrusion.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, a former reporter for Time magazine, has been besieged by questions about the AP and Fox News cases and, at times, struggled to explain the administration’s policies on targeting journalists. He said he and the president learned of both cases from the news media.