The Obama administration does not take a consistent position to leaks of government secrets, a new report on press freedom by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says. Lucy Dalglish, who had a 2011 meeting with the president, is quoted as saying he “shifted in his seat and learned forward” when she and another interviewer pressed him on “the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistle-blowers.”
He said he wanted to engage on this topic because that may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistle-blowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing.”
Obama “has fallen short of his promise” to create a transparent government, the report says. The White House routinely spreads information through channels it controls, like its own website. Staffers “feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage,” Quartz’s Josh Meyer says in the report.
White House officials “strongly objected to such characterizations,” Downie writes. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the government is in a no-win position when it comes to transparency:
“If you can be transparent, you can defend the policy,” Rhodes told me. “But then you’re accused of jeopardizing national security. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There is so much political controversy over everything in Washington. It can be a disincentive.”
But the administration has created a bigger disincentive, Downie argues:
Exposing “waste, fraud and abuse” is considered to be whistle-blowing. But exposing questionable government policies and actions, even if they could be illegal or unconstitutional, is often considered to be leaking that must be stopped and punished. This greatly reduces the potential for the press to help hold the government accountable to citizens.
In a statement about the report, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said the U.S. “has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.”
We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity. That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.
The report calls on Obama to improve the FOIA system and warns that “there are likely to be more Mannings and Snowdens among those who grew up in a digital world with blurred boundaries between public and private, shared and secret information. That makes access by the press to a range of government sources ofinformation and guidance more important than ever.”
“Closing doors to reporters is hurting themselves,” Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward told me, “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.”
Related: Snowden honored by U.S. whistleblowers in Moscow after his father arrives, hoping to visit (The Washington Post)