Despite a promise of transparency, President Barack Obama has run a secretive government that’s chilling the flow of information to reporters while it tries to channel its version of news through its own government media, according to a new report from a journalists’ group.
The report says the Obama administration has curbed the disclosure of government information, limited the use of the Freedom of Information Act, launched a program of internal surveillance to stop people from talking to reporters and conducted an unprecedented number of investigations of journalists.
The search for leaks, the report’s author said, is the most aggressive since President Richard Nixon.
“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press,” says the report by Leonard Downie Jr. for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders,” Michael Oreskes, a senior managing editor of The Associated Press, says in the report.
The AP is one of the news organizations that’s been investigated, its phone records used to find and prosecute a former FBI agent who pleaded guilty to revealing information about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen.
Since Obama took office, his administration has conducted felony criminal prosecutions of six government employees plus two contractors, including Edward Snowden, whom it accused of leaking classified information to the media.
There’d been just three such prosecutions in U.S. history before Obama, the report notes.
“The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” said Downie, who was an editor at The Washington Post when it investigated the Watergate scandal under Nixon.
“The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent,” he added.
Obama came to office vowing the most transparent administration in history. Yet the study found that his administration repeatedly has worked to keep things secret from the media while using social media and other tools to send out its own view of events.
One of Obama’s first acts, for example, was to announce his order that government agencies respond faster to requests filed by reporters or citizens under the Freedom of Information Act. He also created the Open Government Initiative, which set up new websites on which government agencies were to release more information.
“Instead,” Downie wrote, “reporters and open government advocates told me that their FOIA requests too often faced denials, delays, unresponsiveness or demands for exorbitant fees, with cooperation or obstruction varying widely from agency to agency.”
Some offices, such as the Agency for International Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, were “off the charts bad” on revealing things under Freedom of Information Act requests, according to transparency advocate Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight.
The new websites also didn’t deliver.
“The government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press,” the report concludes.
To stop leaks, Obama’s administration also has launched the Insider Threat Program, a program of internal surveillance. The report cited McClatchy's coverage of that program.
If the combined effect is chilling the flow of information in the United States, it’s also serving as a bad model for other countries, press advocates warn.
“Covering this White House is pretty miserable in terms of getting anything of substance to report on in what should be a much more open system,” said Richard McGregor, a correspondent for the Financial Times.
“If the U.S. starts backsliding, it is not only a bad example for more closed states, but also for other democracies that have been influenced by the U.S,” he says in the report.
Reporters said Obama was worse for the press than his predecessor, George W. Bush.
“The Bush administration had a worse reputation,” said Marcus Brauchli, a former executive editor of the Washington Post. “But, in practice, it was much more accepting of the role of journalism in national security.”
Ellen Weiss, the Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said it went beyond national security to other parts of the government.
“The Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration,” she said, singling out such agencies as the EPA as refusing to answer questions.
White House aides rejected the report’s conclusions.
They noted, for example, that Obama has given more interviews than Bush or Bill Clinton did at this point. They said the government had moved to declassify information about its surveillance programs after Snowden revealed them. And they stressed that people still leak information.
“The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says in the report.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes added that the White House does provide officials to talk to the media.
“We make an effort to communicate about national security issues in on-the-record and background briefings by sanctioned sources,” he said.
Those briefings often are limited to a few news outlets, however.
On Sept. 13, for example, Carney abruptly canceled his usual on-the-record briefing for all the media as news was breaking about the president’s standoff with Syria. Instead, Carney invited a few news organizations behind closed doors.