By DAVID McCUMBER
New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — The Committee to Protect Journalists is an inspiring and effective nonprofit. Its mission statement, “Defending Journalists Worldwide,” first brings to mind its laudable campaign to stop “impunity,” the shockingly frequent homicides of journalists across the globe that go unprosecuted.
The committee’s work shows that it’s not just rogue countries like Syria and Somalia where journalists are endangered. The practice of holding the powerful accountable is also under attack in supposed democracies like Turkey, which leads the world in the dubious category of most journalists imprisoned.
But even more surreal is the fact that the latest government rightly identified by CPJ as trying to stifle critical news coverage is … the Obama administration.
CPJ asked Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, to put together the facts of the Obama administration’s secrecy-obsessed war on leaks. While nothing Downie documented is new, the sheer weight of the collected facts makes his report, released last month, a shocking expose that puts a harsh light on the violation of journalists’ privacy, the chilling effect on newsgathering, even the violation of the Justice Department’s own internal guidelines.
“Journalists working in the United States have told us that their work has become more difficult as aggressive leak investigations and prosecution have chilled certain kinds of reporting,” CPR executive director Joel Simon said in explaining why CPJ took on the issue.
That’s borne out in spades in Downie’s report.
“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press,” the report begins.
And why wouldn’t they be? On the Obama watch, six government employees and two contractors (including Edward Snowden) have been prosecuted for felonies under the Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press. That compares with three other such prosecutions since the act was passed — in 1917.
Officials have been accused of leaking classified information, even when it wasn’t classified. Thomas Drake, a former high-ranking NSA official, was the subject of an extraordinarily vindictive prosecution after he dared criticize the agency’s decision-making and, after being rebuffed inside the government, blew the whistle to the Baltimore Sun.
This was well before Snowden’s revelations told us just how much we all should be questioning NSA decisions.
Drake was charged with 10 felonies in a trumped-up travesty of Stalinesque proportion. The information he passed along was found to be unclassified and widely available. Even former NSA Director Michael Hayden told Downie that Drake didn’t deserve what happened to him. “Prosecutorial overreach was so great that it collapsed under its own weight,” Hayden said.
After being sentenced to a year’s probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor just to bring an end to the horror, the courageous whistleblower has nowhere to go to get his life back. If you’re in the market for an iPhone in the D.C. suburbs you might run into this onetime high-ranking public servant in his new job — sales associate in an Apple store.
I’ve met Drake a few times, and listened to him tell his story. I am convinced that he is neither a traitor nor a wing nut. He is a hero whose life has been trampled by powerful forces running the country he loves.
His message to journalists and the citizens we are trying to inform is chilling: “We need to confront the reality that we have a secret government that’s not operating in our best interests.”
His is just one of the cases that make up the Obama administration’s sorry record. Meanwhile, the administration’s “Insider Threat” program -— disclosure of which took a remarkable piece of journalism by McClatchy’s Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay — continues to crack down on potential leakers of any unauthorized information, classified or not.
In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned hard on a promise to make government more transparent. While Obama has taken some cosmetic steps, like declassifying some innocuous documents, Len Downie’s excellent report shows just how hollow that promise really was.
CPJ was right to commission it.
Just as we need to bring moral outrage to bear on repressive governments around the world, we need to keep some of our outrage close at hand, to use in this town.