Neil Macdonald: Barack Obama's war on the press

Washington's obsession with leakers – Attorney General Eric Holder has prosecuted more than any recent administration – is placing a decided chill on press freedoms, Neil Macdonald writes. Secretly seizing Associated Press phone records has only drawn the battle lines tighter.

Washington's obsession with leakers has rendered reporters radioactive

There have been more leak prosecutions under U.S. President Barack Obama, left, than under any previous U.S. administration. (Associated Press)

Suddenly, Barack Obama is terribly concerned with freedom of the press.

The president is now championing a federal "shield law" to protect journalists from overzealous prosecutors and police.

The irony and hypocrisy of this is simply breathtaking. That it's happening in America, of all places, is just sad.

Freedom of the press is already explicitly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

If the American media need a further legal shield — and that's a matter of considerable disagreement amongst journalists themselves — they may need it most to shield them from the Obama administration.

Since taking office, the liberal, intellectual former professor of constitutional law who leads this country, and who spoke so eloquently during his first campaign about the need for government transparency, has conducted a relentless hunt for officials who leak secrets to reporters.

In at least one case, his prosecutors have gone after the reporters themselves.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged it had secretly seized the records of 20 phone lines at the Associated Press early last year.

Such a sweeping, clandestine intrusion is unprecedented in recent history, at least since the paranoid days of the Cold War.

The rationale for the crackdown, on its face, is logical: Classified information is classified for a purpose, and its disclosure injures national security, which the government has a solemn duty to prevent happening.

In reality, though, the classification of information is often spurious, or driven by naked political self-interest, which looks to be at least partly the case in this most recent uproar.

Last year, the AP was told by a tipster that the CIA had thwarted a Yemen-based plot to bomb an airliner last May, on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in justifying the seizure of these phone records, said the leak literally threatened the safety of the American public. And, in fact, the AP sat on the story for several days because the administration said its publication would damage national security.

But, as reported Thursday in the Washington Post, the White House was planning to trumpet the intelligence coup itself, which is what made AP decide to publish what it had.

If the foiled plot could be announced by the government, how exactly would a story about it threaten public safety?

Rendering reporters radioactive

Governments, of course, routinely classify information that's merely embarrassing.

Like the ugly abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; or the torture conducted in secret CIA prisons abroad; or George W. Bush's decision to flout the law designed to protect American citizens from warrantless wiretaps. These were all officially classified information.

President Obama's anti-leak crusade would see to it that the American public never hears about such things. And in the process, the administration is deliberately rendering reporters radioactive.

What official, knowing the Department of Justice is prepared to secretly seize electronic records, would pick up the phone or send a reporter an email?

Some reporters, according to lawyers who specialize in such matters, are turning to so-called "burner phones," the supposedly untraceable, disposable devices cheaply available at corner stores.

Give one to your source, keep one yourself, and toss them after a few calls.

Such is the level of fear here in the "capital of the free world," which, presumably, is what the administration intended.

Barrage of bad press

Obama is hardly the first president, or elected national leader, to crack down on communications to reporters.

The George W. Bush administration, which secretly authorized leaking information to suit its agenda, actually sent a reporter to prison for refusing to name a source.

But Obama's officials have prosecuted more than twice as many leakers (six) as all previous administrations combined.

Some of those prosecutions began under Bush, but Obama's officials are resolutely carrying them forward.

Further, it is widely believed that the Obama's justice department has secretly indicted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who, in concert with large news organizations here and in Canada, revealed thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables.

Some on the right have speculated that Obama's leak-hunts are an effort to capitalize on his supposedly cozy relationship with the media, which, in the view of many conservatives, have acted as adoring liberal handmaidens.

This is nonsense. Right from the outset, the Obama team has been secretive and contemptuous of working reporters, and many have returned the sentiment.

In fact, when a new shield law was first contemplated by Congress a few years ago, it was the White House that eventually torpedoed it, by insisting on exceptions and adjustments that would have rendered it toothless.

Now, though, on its heels with negative stories erupting all around, the administration suddenly finds itself in need of the political reporters it's been clashing with for years.

Republicans are grinding on relentlessly with accusations of an official cover-up after the killings of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, last year.

The Internal Revenue Service has admitted its officials stupidly singled out conservative Tea Party groups for special attention during the last election campaign.

And the seizure of the AP phone records has been page one news here for days now.

Realistically, though, press freedom probably has the least traction of the three issues. Most of the outrage so far has come from journalistic groups, a few politicians, and free-speech advocates.

In annual surveys by the Freedom Forum, a Washington-based advocacy organization, fully one-fifth of respondents routinely say they believe there is too much press freedom in this country, when set against national security concerns.

Right after 9/11, that number rose for a while to 49 per cent.

For all sorts of reasons, some of them good ones, the press itself is not terribly popular here nowadays.

Freedom of the press, though, is something else entirely.

At the risk of sounding over-earnest, there is no freedom without a free press. That's why it's in the Constitution.