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White House’s war on leaks stifles press

Tactics are worst since Nixon era, panel concludes

WASHINGTON — The US government’s aggressive prosecution of leaks and efforts to control information have a chilling effect on journalists and government whistle-blowers, a report released Thursday on US press freedoms under the Obama administration said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists conducted its first examination of US press freedoms amid the Obama administration’s unprecedented number of prosecutions of government sources and seizures of journalists’ records.

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Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote the 30-page analysis. President Obama came into office pledging an open, transparent government after criticizing the Bush administration’s secrecy, “but he has fallen short of his promise.”

“In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press,” wrote Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University. “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”

Downie interviewed reporters and editors, including a top editor at the Associated Press, following revelations this year that the government secretly seized phone records of more than 100 AP journalists.

Those suspected of discussing classified information are increasingly subject to investigation, lie-detector tests, scrutiny of telephone and e-mail records, and surveillance by co-workers under a new “Insider Threat Program” that has been implemented in every agency.

“There’s no question that sources are looking over their shoulders,” Michael Oreskes, the AP’s senior managing editor, told Downie. “Sources are more jittery and more standoffish, not just in national security reporting. A lot of skittishness is at the more routine level. The Obama administration has been extremely controlling.”

To bypass journalists, the White House developed its own network of websites, social media, and an online newscast to dispense favorable information and images. In some cases, the White House produces videos of the president’s meetings with major figures who were never listed on his public schedule. Instead, they were kept secret — a departure from past administrations, the report noted.

To date, six government employees and two contractors have been targeted for prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for accusations that they leaked classified information to the press. There were just three such prosecutions under all previous US presidents.

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