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Reporters as ‘co-conspirators’ in Obama’s war on journalism

The Obama administration is engaged in a war on investigative journalism, backed by national security laws. The internet may free up information, but it also aids government surveillance.

Barack Obama

Is the Obama administration the greatest threat to press freedom since the 19th century?

It’s becoming increasingly hard to dispute this. The war on whistleblowers and online activists by Obama’s Department of Justice now seems a war on journalism with the still-unfolding story of its investigation into Fox News’ Washington correspondent James Rosen, coming so soon after the revelations of the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records for Associated Press journalists.

The warnings from WikiLeaks supporters and press freedom advocates that the administration’s investigation of and attacks on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks meant all US journalists were under threat now look prescient as the administrations stalks journalists, seizes their personal correspondence and wiretaps them. The Nixon administration did worse, but did it illegally and tried to hide it. The Obama administration is using the legal panoply of the War on Terror to attack journalism in broad daylight, unapologetically.

Investigating a 2009 leak of information about North Korea, the Justice Department used records of James Rosen’s visits to the State Department, obtained records of the time of his calls with a leak suspect (data retention, anyone?) and in 2010 obtained a warrant to force Google to hand over Rosen’s emails.

This comes only days after the revelation that the Justice Department seized Associated Press journalists’ work and personal phone records after AP broke a terrorism story that potentially embarrassed the administration.

Key to the Justice Department’s pursuit of Rosen is the department’s claim that he was a “co-conspirator” with his source for “soliciting classified information” (by “employing flattery and playing to Mr. Kim’s vanity and ego”, no less). That is, not merely was the DoJ after his source, it is after Rosen himself.

There is also evidence the DoJ may have repeatedly tried to force Google to hand over Rosen’s emails and that the company fought the department.

There are strong parallels between the Rosen case and the administration’s efforts to portray Assange as soliciting and aiding Bradley Manning to leak classified cables and other material. Warnings that the targeting of WikiLeaks and Assange would ultimately harm journalism frequently fell on deaf ears, with many journalists disputing that WikiLeaks’s actions were journalism. But as it turns out, even as WikiLeaks and its then-mainstream media partners were releasing the cables, the Obama administration had already launched its pursuit of Rosen.

Journalists who seek genuine leaks or information from within the Obama administration now know there’s a good chance they will have their personal and professional phone records and emails seized, which is likely to have a chilling effect on an industry already under massive financial pressure. Who wants to have their personal documents subpoenaed, and face the prospect of going to jail as a “co-conspirator” or costing the company that employs them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the government in court?

Meantime, administration-sanctioned leaks remain a key part of the Washington modus operandi. Google the phrase “speaking on condition of anonymity” and see how often it is used in US political journalism, including in relation to Department of Justice officials. Until recently, nearly everything that was known about Obama’s drone murder program, for example, was via anonymous leaks. Only yesterday, administration officials under the cloak of anonymity were flagging retaliation against China for what the US claims are systematic cyber attacks (more on that another time).

This is an important dimension to this story. The administration’s attack on journalists isn’t for revealing secrets per se. The US government isn’t so much in the secrecy business as the information management business: information is a resource to be carefully doled out under strictly controlled circumstances, in particular to cultivate and manage the media. The New York Times, famously, arranged meetings with the State Department to vet the WikiLeaks cables before publication, so concerned was The Times that it would endanger its access to traditional authorised leaks.

What the internet provides is a way for governments to try to limit competing sources of information distribution so that they can more effectively maintain a monopoly on management of government-controlled information. Instead of meeting in car parks Watergate-style, journalists and sources now exchange emails that can be obtained from service providers via subpoena.

This is the great question of internet regulation: whether it becomes a tool of more effective government surveillance or a tool of information freedom (or, most likely, something of both). And for all journalists and media outlets, whether in the US or elsewhere, that means getting to grips with the challenge of effectively encrypting their data so that governments have a much more difficult time obtaining it, and identifying their sources, even when backed by courts. Obama’s war on journalism is unlikely to stop any time soon.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I thought Leveson, then then Conroy, then Gillard were the worst threats?

    … from their own criteria I suppose anyone who wants to treat them the way they think they have a Right to treat everyone else is must be? To hold them to account and responsible for their actions?

  • 2
    drmick
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Yes Klewso; The irony of a partisan mob with a stated anti government agenda, that hires whor$s to lie to order, that hack phones of dead kids, that buy police, judges and politicians complaining that their freedom is being impinged in some way is gob-smackingly breathtaking. No honour, no credibility and the industry is dying and the best they can come up with is it is the fault of the victims of their vitriol.
    Its like the hunter complaining that Bambis mother was a terrorist in disguise and threat to freedom. (Oooh. Sounds just like NSW atm).

  • 3
    Harry Rogers
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Of course its an historical reaction of every government, no matter what their colour, to want to suppress information damaging to their cause.

    The press are no different when their papers are attacked viz. Australian,Heralds ad infinitum and the tabloid used the same methods as the government.

    We are now at the point where the lack of trust in government and the press has reached endemic levels.

    Maybe the internet is the solution as its ceratinly riles both parties when criticised. How dare the normal man contest Laurie Oakes comments or dare to question a minister of the crown…what world is this we have brought upon ourselves says the Attorney General.

    Viva la revolution?

  • 4
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Doubleplusgood!

  • 5
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Obama is the CEO of the world’s biggest, most evil terrorist organisation, with more than 6 million civilians murdered in illegal wars since 1960 - check out Dr Gideon Polya’s website for the well documented details

    The rule of law is a distant memory in all of the US Federal Government administration’s machinations.

    Obama = evil for mine.

  • 6
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    I think we have to face the fact that the fourth estate has become far too powerful for its own good.

    Newscorp is a good example of the damage that can be done by strategic private dominance of public information. There has to be some balance between governance and liberty. Wikileaks is a good example of how much damage can be done by stealing supposedly secure government data. Hacking into government data has to have terrible consequences for how information is generated and shared inside government instrumentalities.

    The fourth estate no longer necessarily represents anything except itself and its own interests. Notions of freedom are not served particularly well by either corporate totalitarians or irresponsible anarchists. And while cleaning out these tendencies is not without risk, maybe these are risks worth taking.

  • 7
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Nagle:

    You’re confusing what actually constitutes the traditional 4th estate, which has the crucial job in a functioning democracy of keeping the government & business community honest, with the US MSM (including Hollywood) & its subsidiaries in the UK & Oz, which are ‘owned’ by the same Trotskyite sleazebags who ‘own’ the US Congress. This group[ is not involved in the media…they are propoganda stooges for the US banksters, neocons, MIC, transport lobby, medical lobby.

    Fairly basic established facts I would have thought.

    In 2013 web titles like Crikey, New Matilda, Glenn Greenwald, Media Lens, Press TV, Russia Today, Muzzlewatch, Tikum Olam etc etc around the world are the new representatives of all that is central to a functioning investigative media which underpins a healthy democracy.

    To hear an extra judicial murderer like Obama lecturing Myanmaar on human rights on tonight’s TV news is breathtaking hypocrisy.

  • 8
    Dale Winters
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    How much can one cram into 5 lines? never enough.

    One day the world will wake from it’s deepest slumber and cry out..save us!but too late it will be, all the Eliyahu’s have long gone.But at least the likes of Keane and co will hold their heads high. Great article.

  • 9
    Tim Vicenete
    Posted Friday, 24 May 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    @Dale I look forward to a daily 11:00 two minute Bernard Keane hate ritual. Long live Airstrip One! :-)

    Whether left or right governments end up in the same place using power for nothing more than clinging to power but not a clue what else to do with it. What does it matter where we came from? The important thing is we are here and not going anywhere. That is all that matters, right Julia?

  • 10
    Dale Winters
    Posted Monday, 27 May 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    @Dale, since when is factual reporting a hate rant?

    and…”What does it matter where we came from?”

    I have no idea what you infer?

  • 11
    deano hall
    Posted Monday, 27 May 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Free Julian Assange!! Media is the last hope in keeping the buggers honest. If you lot (already strangled by MSM owners),are too scared to talk - FREEDOM is over. Very frustrated that I cant comment on Big Pond news articles- they are instantly deleted(CIA gives Karzai millions in bags). The world is sick of US garbage/propaganda dribble. A bit of research on the net, soon provides the REAL reasons for anyone caring/daring? to look! Petrodollar is about to collapse.War on drugs? War on terror? Pine Gap & Echelon monitoring is the real worry! Will Aus govt stay loyal to US? Didnt Julia just sign a trade deal with China? The only thing US provides now is military technology-we cant buy these goods down the shops! Asia buys most of our exports. Isnt time we left the US program of denial,secrets & corporates in power? The internet is our last hope of knowing whats really happening-TRUTH will always find a way. If alternative media is silenced- NAZI jackboots will be kicking down doors again & your assets frozen or seized!

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