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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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