WASHINGTON—In a Sept. 22 letter to President Barack Obama, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was “deeply troubled” by the monitoring of journalists’ communications by government agencies, the ensnaring of journalists in investigations of leaks by whistleblowers, and the harassment and intimidation of journalists at the U.S. border. The missive cited the use of a National Security Letter to obtain Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s phone records, the National Security Agency’s hacking into an Al-Jazeera internal communication system, and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras being detained for interrogation at airports more than 40 times in the six years before she collaborated with Glenn Greenwald on releasing Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance.
Several journalists, it said, have complained that surveillance has had “a chilling effect on them and their sources.” CPJ also said it was “concerned by ongoing aggressive leak investigations that target journalists with subpoenas and search warrants.” It cited the Department of Justice’s efforts to force New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal the name of a confidential source or be cited for contempt of court, and its 2010 investigation targeting Fox News’ James Rosen for engaging in “ordinary newsgathering activities.” The FBI’s brief for a search warrant in that case described the reporter as an “aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the leak of a classified State Department report on North Korea’s nuclear capability.
CPJ urged the administration to “do more to ameliorate the effect of pervasive surveillance on the free flow of news,” by issuing “a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations,” limiting “aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers,” and preventing “the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.” “We recognize the government’s vital interest in protecting U.S. national security,” CPJ wrote, “but there must be reasonable limits—and meaningful, independent checks—on the powers of any one person, agency, or branch of government.”
The CPJ letter echoes a letter sent by 38 journalism and open government organizations, including the Defending Dissent Foundation, to President Obama in August calling on him to address what amounts to ‘censorship’, including ‘political suppression of news and information’ and ‘an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear’ from federal agency employees. Both letters come at a time when journalists and their sources have become increasingly swept up in the administration’s attempts to crack down on leaks.
The “Insider Threat Program,” launched in 2011 in the aftermath of Chelsea Manning’s massive leaking of diplomatic cables and classified documents to Wikileaks, orders federal workers and contractors to watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among their coworkers, with penalties for failing to report them. “Hammer this fact home… leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” said a June 1, 2012, Defense Department document for the program obtained by the McClatchy news service. Critics say that the program’s broad and imprecise behavior profiling makes it ineffective at addressing genuine security threats.
The Department of Education, in a manual obtained by McClatchy, said that “stress, divorce, financial problems” or “frustrations with co-workers or the organization” might turn a trusted coworker into an “insider threat.” Some argue that it actually increases the risk that classified information will be widely disseminated, since it inadvertently creates incentives for sources to turn to less conventional media outlets such as Wikileaks, instead of talking to reporters.
“Closing doors to reporters is hurting [the government] because less responsible news organizations will publish or broadcast whatever they want. In the end, it does not hurt the press; it can damage national security,” veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward said in a CPJ report released last October on the Obama administration’s relationship with the press. In July, Human Rights Watch released a report that said “surveillance programs and a government crackdown on unregulated contact between officials and the press have combined to constrict the flow of information concerning government activity.” The report went on to say that administration officials were “substantially less willing to be in contact with the press” as a result of the climate created by the Insider Threat Program, and that “rather than being treated as essential checks on government and partners in ensuring a healthy democratic debate, [journalists] now feel they may be viewed as suspect for doing their jobs.”