Obama’s Leak Obsession Leads to Privacy and Free Speech Abuses

Accuracy in Media


The Obama Administration is obsessed with leaks. Not the information it carefully leaks on its own, but the leaked stories which prove inconvenient for the Administration’s carefully crafted narratives. This serves as an extension of the White House’s emphatic desire to control all media accounts of itself, and craft a positive image before the public. Thus, even in the case of national security, leaks are designed to enhance the Administration’s profile. For those that aren’t, the reporters better watch out.

“Administrations have always done exactly what Obama’s has: condemn leaks in public while leaking for its own benefit,” asserted Trevor Timm in the June 2012 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “America’s finest journalism is often produced with the aid of classified information; The New York Times’ report on warrantless wiretapping and The Washington Post’s exposé on CIA secret prisons, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize, are just two of countless examples.” He calls this Obama’s “secret hypocrisy.” Indeed, the Administration did not go after the leakers of the Stuxnet story, nor the leakers of the “kill list” story, because those were sanctioned leaks.

More than hypocrisy, the Administration’s recent actions border on being a vendetta. No better example exists than the recent Associated Press scandal, in which the Justice Department subpoenaed a sweeping two months of AP phone records from Verizon Wireless last year without notifying the news organization—essentially giving the AP no chance to fight back in the courts. “Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts,” wrote Lynn Oberlander, general counsel for the New Yorker. Had the Administration come to the Associated Press and asked for the records directly, “they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas,” he writes.

“What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess—there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury—but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the AP that it even wanted this information.”

What has happened as a result of the Administration’s circumvention of the courts? Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt says that sources are now hesitant to talk to the AP because they’re concerned that they’ll be monitored by the government.

“Sources, just in the normal course of news gathering, recently, say we don’t necessarily want to talk to you,” said Pruitt. “We don’t want our phone records monitored by the U.S. government.” The CEO argued that the seizure of these phone records is “unconstitutional.”

It appears that President Obama and his Administration were upset with the Associated Press not just because they had a source within the government—the AP held the story back a number of days at government request—but because the news organization exercised one-upmanship by releasing the story before an official Administration press release could be issued. “The White House wanted to—wanted us to hold it another day because they wanted to announce this successful foiling of the plot,” said Pruitt on CBS’s Face the Nation. “So they wanted—they didn’t want to get scooped,” asserted Bob Schieffer.

“[T]hey didn’t tell us their motive, but that certainly seemed that way to us,” said Pruitt. “We didn’t think that was a legitimate reason for holding the story.”

In addition, Pruitt noted that the Administration had been broadcasting that there was no real threat on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. This was patently false, as the story issued by the AP demonstrated. “So that was misleading to the American public. We felt the American public needed to know this story,” Pruitt said, according to the AP. He told Face the Nation that the move by the Justice Department will “hurt journalism” as a whole.

How far, exactly, is the Obama Administration willing to go to harass journalists who are just doing their job? Former New York Times Washington bureau chief Max Frankel argued in the 1970s that “We have been taught, particularly in the past generation of spy scares and Cold War, to think of secrets as secrets—varying in their ‘sensitivity’ but uniformly essential to the private conduct of diplomatic and military affairs and somehow detrimental to the national interest if prematurely disclosed.”

However, “practically everything that our Government does, plans, thinks, hears and contemplates in the realms of foreign policy is stamped and treated as secret—and then unraveled by that same Government, by the Congress and by the press in one continuing round of professional and social contacts and cooperative and competitive exchanges of information.”

“The governmental, political and personal interests of the participants are inseparable in this process,” continued Frankel. “Presidents make ‘secret’ decisions only to reveal them for the purposes of frightening an adversary nation, wooing a friendly electorate, protecting their reputations” (emphasis added). In other words, what is secret remains secret in Washington only so long as it is expedient to the president (unless it is leaked by his critics), and the press serves a vital role in disseminating information both for and against an Administration.

President Obama is making an unprecedented effort to control this process of give and take with the press. As Adam Serwer of the liberal Mother Jones magazine tweeted in response to the recent James Rosen debacle, “If you prosecute reporters for seeking/receiving leaks…you’re basically making non-government sanctioned reporting a crime.”

“If James Rosen’s ‘clandestine communications plan’ were illegal, every journalist in Washington would be locked up. Unreal,” tweeted Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. Even the White House’s favorite go-to guy, Chuck Todd of MSNBC, called it proof that the Obama administration wanted to “criminalize journalism.”

“The case of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the government adviser, and James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, bears striking similarities to a sweeping leaks investigation disclosed last week in which federal investigators obtained records over two months of more than 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press,” reported Ann E. Marimow for The Washington Post. Kim is just one of six persons that the Administration has tried or will try under the Espionage Act—more than all previous administrations combined. According to the Post, the Justice Department used “security badge access records,” traced calls, and searched Rosen’s emails. The affidavit lists Rosen as a criminal “co-conspirator” in the release of top secret information, and suggested that he is a flight risk.

In response to labeling Rosen a co-conspirator, The New York Times editorialized that “the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.”

Of course, the President is no fan of Fox News. In 2009 his former campaign advisor and then-White House Communications Director, Anita Dunn, said the news organization “often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.” “We traditionally will go after the emails of a person who is under criminal suspicion for leaking it,” said columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News. “But we do not go after the journalists who merely are soliciting information. We have never had a successful prosecution of a journalist doing his job.”

CBS News journalist Sharyl Attkisson, the recipient of Accuracy in Media’s 2012 Reed Irvine Award for Investigative Journalism, now believes that her computers may have been compromised as early as February 2011, if not earlier, when she was reporting on the Fast and Furious scandal and green energy stories detrimental to the President. “Well, I’m not ready to fully speak publicly about some things that have affected me because I’m trying to be methodical and careful about what I say,” she told WPHT radio in Philadelphia, “but there has been an issue in my house and there’s been an issue with my computers that’s gone on for quite a long time, that we’re looking into.” Attkisson likened her position as possibly similar to that of Rosen. However, “The Justice Department denies targeting Attkisson, which makes the possibilities even more chilling,” wrote Rick Moran for the American Thinker website. “Someone wanted to know what Attkisson knew about two administration scandals and were willing to break the law to find out.”

While Attorney General Eric Holder claims he recused himself in the case of the AP story (though he admits he never signed a recusal letter, and doesn’t remember specifically when he supposedly did it), NBC News’ Michael Isikoff reported on Thursday that Holder signed off on the “search warrant that identified Fox News reporter James Rosen as a ‘possible co-conspirator’ in violations of the Espionage Act and authorized seizure of his private emails.” This brings into question whether or not Holder was telling the truth about having recused himself in the AP case. And what about in the matter of Sharyl Attkisson?

Not only does the Administration have the power to subpoena phone records, it may also have the power to know what was said in those phone calls. In an appearance in early May on CNN, former FBI counterterrorism expert Tim Clemente asserted that “We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation”—referring to a past phone conversation with the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev, along with his brother Dzhokhar, was the alleged Islamic terrorist responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing.

“It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her,” said Clemente. “We certainly can find that out.”

“I’m talking about all digital communications are, there’s a way to look into digital communications in the past, and I can’t go into detail of how that’s done or what’s done,” he said in the second interview, “but I can tell you that no digital communication is secure” (emphasis added). No other major U.S. news sources followed up on what Clemente said. There was some coverage in the British press, but I have seen no confirmation, nor denial. When this first came out, it seemed too incredible a concept to believe—that all digital communications in the U.S. are being recorded. Now, with the revelation of the Administration’s actions towards journalists, this doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Does our government truly have this power, and if so, what exactly is the Obama Administration doing with it? Congress and the media should look into this.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.

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