President Barack Obama has reneged on his promise of an open and transparent administration, and it is chilling freedom of the press. The White House is routinely closing itself off to press photographers to keep people from seeing unscripted images of the president at work. Administration officials are so scared of being prosecuted for leaks that information-sharing has been stanched. That might thrill national security chiefs and communications handlers, but it is terrible news for citizens who want to be informed.
For the first time, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a well-regarded organization promoting press freedom around the world, has issued a report on the United States. "The Obama Administration and the Press" starts with a withering indictment that officials within the administration "are increasingly afraid to talk to the press." It goes on to document the breadth of the administration's assault on news-gathering, including using polygraphs and email surveillance of anyone suspected of leaking classified information.
At the same time, a coalition of press organizations including the American Society of News Editors has sent a letter of complaint to White House spokesman Jay Carney over the way press photographers have been prevented from covering important events with the president. The administration has been designating the president's meetings with members of Congress or visiting dignitaries as "private" to bar media photographers. It then releases its own photographs of the events, undercutting its claims that they are private and not newsworthy. The press coalition is right when it says the White House is replacing "independent photojournalism with visual press releases."
This is a sharp departure from the way other administrations operated, and it blocks the public's view of the president engaging in the people's business and acting in his official capacity.
Under Obama, government officials also have been pursued to an unprecedented degree if they are suspected of leaking information to the media. Felony charges have been brought against six government employees and two contractors for leaking classified information, more than in all prior administrations combined.
In seizing records for 20 telephones at the offices of the Associated Press during an investigation into a leak about a CIA program in Yemen, the Justice Department ignored its own guidelines. AP wasn't informed of the seizure until three months after the records were obtained. It had no opportunity to challenge the subpoenas in court or reduce their scope through direct negotiations with the government.
Journalists report that the Obama administration is the most closed administration since Richard Nixon's. Its "Insider Threat Program" designed to stop leaks has government workers paranoid of their co-workers and afraid to provide journalists with the information that brings clarity to government operations.
The administration's excuse is that national security leaks have led to disclosures of an array of sensitive programs, including National Security Agency's gathering of domestic communications metadata. But that doesn't excuse the overreach.
A big part of the problem is that too much information is classified. In 2010 alone government employees made 92 million decisions to classify information, including, absurdly, previously published newspaper articles. Even in truly sensitive programs, such as the use of drones to kill Americans overseas suspected of terrorism, the public should be made aware of their broad parameters to allow for debate essential in a democracy.
The report gives failing marks to Obama's presidency on the issue of transparency. Voters and democracy are harmed. Having dependable sources inside the government is the only way journalists can report on vital public issues and provide the public the information to hold government accountable.