Under Obama, a Chill on Press Freedom
By ALBERT R. HUNT | BLOOMBERG VIEWJUNE 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — Few presidential candidates enjoyed better news coverage than Barack Obama in 2008. He promised unprecedented “openness in government” and a new era of transparency.
He appears to have fallen far short of the promise. This administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers for leaks and gone after more journalists than any of its predecessors.
In a report last year, Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, said the administration’s efforts to crack down on information seeping to journalists were “the most aggressive” since President Richard Nixon was in office.
The issue was crystallized anew last week when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been ordered to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency official. Mr. Sterling is charged with giving Mr. Risen classified information about an attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. The Justice Department has pursued Mr. Risen, and he could face jail time for failing to comply with the subpoena.
Why has this once-media-friendly administration turned? Insiders say it’s the pressure of the powerful national security apparatus and the fear among Obama aides that the president could face the wrath of the intelligence community if he fails to act tough.
The C.I.A. and others invariably contend that leaks imperil the nation. Sometimes they may be right: There is no defense of a 1942 Chicago Tribune article revealing that the United States had broken the Japanese code. Fortunately, The Tribune apparently had no readers in Tokyo.
More often, clampdowns are intended to cover embarrassments. In 1971, the government went to extraordinary lengths to try to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, an internal review of the Vietnam War. The suppression attempt was unsuccessful. In any case, the flaws of the war were already clear to friends and foes alike.
Similar claims about protecting national security are being made about Mr. Sterling, who proclaims his innocence.
In the United States, the news media has considerable protections when it comes to censorship or libel, but they don’t apply to news gathering. Starting with a 1972 decision — handed down 12 days before the Watergate break-in — courts have held that the news media has no automatic privilege to protect the identity of a source.
4There were further setbacks for journalists a decade ago, when a special prosecutor investigated a leak that revealed the identity of a covert C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame.
That was a worst-case scenario for the news media: a national security issue in which reporters were the only source of information. And the news media conflated anonymous sources — who want to be protected for political or personal reasons — with confidential informants, who could be endangered personally or politically if identified.
Some in the news media say the answer is a federal shield law that protects a reporter’s right not to divulge sources. Yet that would raise complicated questions about who would be covered, and any measure that could pass Congress would exclude national security matters, the area in which most controversies arise.
Thus, on the federal level, much depends on an administration’s attitude. Since Nixon, most have taken a comparatively benign posture. The Obama administration has pursued more journalists than other administrations, secretly looking at phone records and credit card transactions and surreptitiously tracking their movements.
A federal judge dismissed the proceedings against Mr. Risen; the Obama administration successfully appealed the decision.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has vowed to change this approach. With the decision by the Supreme Court last week, the Risen case offers the opportunity to do so.
The best bet is that the government won’t drop the case or prosecute Mr. Risen; it will simply decline to call him in the Sterling case.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/us/politics/under-obama-a-chill-on-press-freedom.html?_r=0