WASHINGTON — Despite a promise of transparency, President 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.
Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote the 30-page analysis, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The search for leaks, Downie said, is the most aggressive since President Nixon, adding: “In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press.”
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Michael Oreskes, a senior managing editor of The Associated Press, says in the report: “There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders.”
The Associated Press is one of the news organizations that has 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 had been 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 during Nixon’s presidency.
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 (FOIA). 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.”
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. “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.,” Richard McGregor, a correspondent for The Financial Times, said in the report.
White House aides rejected the report’s conclusions.
They noted, for example, that Obama has given more interviews than George W. 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.