A sprawling security State raised upon the ruins of the World Trade Center’s twin towers is encroaching upon press freedom in the US, aided at least in part by a president seeking to enhance his political narrative — while public trust in the media has hit a historic low.
In its six years in office, the Barack Obama administration has invoked an archaic 1917 Espionage Act eight times to prosecute government employees for leaking classified information, forcing journalists to appear in criminal trials to name their sources. There have only been three other prosecutions under this law in all of US history.
If the Justice Department pushes ahead, The New York Times’ national security reporter James Risen could go to prison this year for refusing to name an intelligence source behind a chapter in a 2006 book he wrote called State of War.
Another journalist, a television reporter with the conservative anti-Obama Fox News network, was named a “co-conspirator” last year for reporting on an impending nuclear test by North Korea. However, Fox reporter James Rosen was not prosecuted following an uproar.
In perhaps the most dubious case to date, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated a Reuters report of a closed-door decision in 2013 to settle complaints over a massive $6.2 billion loss from a single JP Morgan Chase trader in 2012. In a civil settlement, the company paid about $1 billion in fines. (The company had earned a profit of $21.3 billion for the year.)
The loss by the trader, known within the industry as the London Whale, fuelled outrage, raising fears that big banks had learnt no lessons from the 2008 financial crisis. The banks, which had to be bailed out by public money during the crisis, had set off a global financial meltdown by making risky bets but masking them through opaque practices.
In an attempt to identify the source of the Reuters’ report, the SEC interviewed 53 of its employees, including commission chairperson Mary Jo White. It went through the emails of 39 employees and obtained the attendance roster for the closed-door meeting, according to another Reuters report from July this year.
The SEC obtained “building access logs” to determine when four Reuters reporters had visited the agency’s headquarters. It also wanted to interview the reporters involved but they declined the request, the news agency said.
The brazenness of this effort is matched only by the critical importance financial reporting has assumed after the 2008 crisis. Financial institutions are increasingly able to use computer programmes and complicated algorithms to identify risky bets, with investors standing no chance of understanding them.
As New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist observes: “The expansion of computing power, coupled with a soft regulatory environment, allowed Wall Street banks and other powerful institutions to add opacity back into the financial system and to put themselves in the middle of a new, phenomenally complex investment business… the banks lured math and physics experts into their fold. But in reality, for the average investor, journalist, or even regulator, this new trove of data has been mostly out of reach and unintelligible… It should now be the duty of journalists to unlock it.”
Added to this inscrutability of big financial transactions is the grim truth that no one on Wall Street has ever paid a price for causing the global meltdown. Bonuses, on the other hand, have kept rising. The middle class, which suffered losses of billions in pension funds in 2008, is today once again left out of the loop — something that is especially incongruous under a progressive president who is “philosophically” opposed to big business.
Another disturbing case of intimidation occurred in 2012 and involved the Associated Press, the dominant American news agency. It neatly illustrates the use of the State security apparatus by the Obama administration to support a political narrative.
In that year, the AP ran a story revealing that a plot to bomb an airliner bound for the US had been foiled in Yemen, a feel-good story that normally would elicit only murmurs of approval in security circles. Except, Obama was up for re-election later that year, and the story did not fit the administration spin of having “decimated” al Qaeda with Osama bin Laden’s killing the previous year.
It turned out that the Justice Department secretly obtained records of work, mobile and home numbers of AP journalists as well as AP bureau numbers in New York, Washington DC, and one other city in an investigation to identify the leaker.
The Justice Department also obtained records of the AP number in the US House of Representatives press gallery. A senior AP editor recently estimated that the investigation would have compromised the sources of at least 100 reporters working on several unrelated stories.
The taming of the US press, historically the world’s most vigorous, can only be partly explained by the expansion of the security apparatus following the 9/11 attacks. In truth, the largely liberal, postmodern mainstream media seems to lack the vocabulary to describe censorship and intimidation by a history-making president thrown up from obscurity by the finest traditions of liberalism.
In an interview to his own newspaper after the Supreme Court recently denied his appeal, the NYT’s Risen seemed to express this frustration: “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistleblowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
Risen has exhausted his legal avenues and will have to go to prison if he continues to refuse to identify his source in a criminal prosecution of a former CIA officer. The ex-officer is accused of leaking details of a botched operation to fool Iranians by supplying them with faulty designs of a centrifuge.
The undercover operation, which the CIA ran during the Bush administration, may have ended up actually helping the Iranians when the former Russian scientist involved lost his nerve and came clean to the Iranians.
Though the subpoena for Risen to testify in the case was issued by the Bush administration, it was pursued vigorously by the Obama administration after it expired in 2009. There have been other instances of the Obama administration colluding with the CIA to cover up political mistakes or further political goals. (See CIA caught in the vortex of DC politics, 17 May).
Surprisingly, though the freedom of the press is enshrined in the US Constitution, a reporter cannot plead privilege in a criminal case, as ruled by the Supreme Court in Branzburg vs Hayes in 1972. In the Risen case, the Supreme Court’s one-line order gave no reason but left no doubt it sided with the government.
At least two other media reports provoked investigation by federal agencies under the Obama administration: One was about a US-led cyber attack on Iranian nuclear facilities using the virus Stuxnet and the other about the existence of a “kill list” of terrorists to be taken out by drone strikes by the CIA.
Speaking at an event for African- American journalists in Boston on 14 August, NYT’s executive editor Dean Baquet best reflected the reluctance by the mainstream media to hold Obama to account. “The Obama administration is more secretive… But I think I agree (with another speaker) this is part of a continuum,” said Baquet, who took over in May as the newspaper’s first African- American executive editor.
“I think there was an amazing confluence of events starting with, and more forcefully led by, September 11,” Baquet added, before concluding: “I think the Bush administration was more philosophically secretive.” Decoded, it expresses in somewhat obscure fashion the sentiment that the elite Washington press corps can overlook the crime if the criminal has an appealing biography.
Baquet goes on to say that September 11 “told them” (the Bush administration) that (the secrecy) was okay and concedes that “the press did not challenge it enough”. However, the long-time NYT staffer and Pulitzer Prize winner seems to overlook the possibility that the press may be compounding that mistake by repeating it today.
Harder to explain is the fact that Obama seems to provide cover to Washington’s “secrecy establishment” even over the heads of respected members from his own Democratic Party. Shortly after an unsavoury snooping incident that opened the Senate, or the Upper House of the Congress, to ridicule, Obama ignored pleas to sack CIA chief John Brennan.
He declared that Brennan continued to have his confidence even after an investigation found that the CIA had been spying on its overseer, the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reason the administration gave for giving Brennan a pass was flimsy: It said the CIA chief had been himself unaware of the spying on the Senate staff.
The chairwoman of the committee, Democrat Diane Feinstein, was investigating the Bush-era torture techniques employed on terror suspects by the CIA, something Obama has expressed deep aversion to.
To add insult to injury, the report is being redacted by former intelligence officials, including former CIA director George Tenet, before it can be released. Feinstein has refused to release it until the redactions are withdrawn.
Writing in 2010, three years before former security contractor Edward Snowden exposed an all-pervasive effort by the government to track communications of ordinary Americans, a team of investigators from The Washington Post concluded that the “top-secret world” that was created as part of the response to the 9/11 attacks had become too large to be managed.
The investigation revealed, among other things, that about 1,271 government organisations and 1,931 private companies were in the security business in 10,000 locations across the US, producing 50,000 reports each year — so voluminous that some were not even read.
Although The Post put the number of people who had top-secret security clearances at 854,000, it may have underestimated that number, or the number may have grown in the years since. Another credible estimate put the number at well over a million this year.
At the same time, confidence in the news media, print and television, is at a historic low, according to the latest Gallup poll that tracks trust in public institutions. The news media ranks near the bottom among 16 other institutions at 18-22 percent, a drop of over 50 percent for newspapers from their highest point at 51 percent in 1979. Newspapers are trusted slightly more than television news, which fell from 46 percent in 1993 to 18 percent.
In the new age of big-data journalism begun ironically by non-journalist whistleblowers like WikiLeaks and Snowden, mainstream media in the US seems to be suffering from a too-cosy relationship with newsmakers.
That, and the advent of social media, which is allowing newsmakers to reach audiences directly, without a media filter. The White House, for instance, has drawn numerous complaints from the press corps for being extremely secretive. More troubling for journalists, the Obama machine wants to control the way information is presented, often tweeting photos and press releases directly.
Though it has recently moved to allow more access, replacing former Time journalist Jay Carney with longtime Obama confidant Josh Earnest as White House spokesman, this is seen as a transparent attempt to prepare for the mid-term polls later this year. For several weeks now, Obama is taking impromptu questions from the media after making statements.
In 2008, Washington elites could hardly restrain their glee to be rid of Bush, a man with what it saw as a naive, simplistic outlook on the world. Nerves frayed by Bush’s rustic, quasi-evangelical sensibilities were soothed by Obama’s sophistication and his unerring instinct for the urbane tone.
The president recently struck the right note on press freedom once again, speaking after the arrest of two reporters covering protests against the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” he said.
That is unlikely to comfort Risen.