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Watchdog: U.S. Drive Against News Leaks Hampers Press Freedom

  • Heather Maher

The Espionage Act was also used to prosecute U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, for releasing classified information to WikiLeaks.

The Espionage Act was also used to prosecute U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, for releasing classified information to WikiLeaks.

Actions taken by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration have had a "chilling effect" on investigative national-security journalism, according to a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The report cites the tracking of reporters' phone calls, the seizures of their e-mails, and the prosecution of their sources.

The author of the report, former "Washington Post" Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., told RFE/RL that he interviewed dozens of journalists who said that they and their sources fear that the government is tracking them in an effort to find out who is speaking to the press:

"Journalists -- particularly national-security journalists, but [also] other people covering other aspects of the federal government -- say that, increasingly, their sources of information in the government -- government officials, who are doing the people's business -- are afraid to talk to them because they will be investigated," Downie said. "So, they're very reluctant to talk to reporters."

Since assuming office in 2009, the Obama administration has prosecuted eight government workers or contractors for giving classified information to reporters. Only three such cases were prosecuted under all other U.S. presidents.

In its pursuit of security leaks, the government has seized the e-mails and phone records of journalists from media outlets including "The New York Times" and Associated Press.

Former FBI agent Donald Sachtleben pled guilty in September to leaking classified information to the Associated Press about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen. Investigators said they were only able to identify him after secretly seizing reporters' phone logs.

The Justice Department says it only pursues people it believes have leaked U.S. secrets, calling them a threat to national security.

Government transparency advocates and many journalists consider such figures well-meaning whistle-blowers.

Journalists interviewed for the CPJ report said they now try to protect their sources by avoiding phone calls and e-mail and relying on intermediaries.

"Reporters are trying to get around [government surveillance] by arranging face-to-face meetings, by interviewing people through intermediaries," Downie said, "so that the government officials can say, if they have to take a lie-detector test -- as many do -- that they didn't talk directly to a reporter."

David Sanger, a national security reporter for "The New York Times," told Downie that longtime sources will no longer speak to him.

The report also details how the Obama administration has asked government workers to spy on each other.

Downie says the pan-government "Insider Threat Program" asks employees to "monitor each other to make sure no one is providing classified information" to the press.

Administration officials interviewed for the CPJ report -- including Obama spokesperson Jay Carney, a former reporter himself -- dismissed the complaints and said Obama has lived up to his pledge to run the most transparent government in history.

As evidence, they pointed to multiple new government websites and the White House's extensive use of video and social media to communicate with the public.

But Downie says the tight message control is designed to show the administration "in the best possible light:"

"What they're making it difficult for reporters to get to is information that could actually hold the government accountable for its actions," Downie said, "which is a very important function of the American press under the [constitution]."

With the release of the report, the United States joins Iran, Burma, China, Pakistan, and Egypt as one of the countries the CPJ has conducted press freedom surveys on this year.