Obama's attack on press freedom is his most shameful reversal yet

The president has no-one to blame but himself for this broken promise

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Barack Obama promised a lot of things upon first taking office that have not come to pass. Often we can find other forces to blame, usually Republicans in Congress. They didn’t want Guantanamo Bay closed, they made bipartisanship impossible, they’ve put immigration reform in aspic. But it’s hard to make excuses for the President when we recall what he said about open government.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the travails of James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security writer for The New York Times, who for three years now has been hounded under threat of prison time for refusing to divulge the source of passages in his 2006 book, State of War, about bungled attempts by the US several years ago secretly to subvert Iran’s nuclear research programme.

It has always been the instinct of this White House to make the walls between government and those who report on it as intimidating as possible. That means aggressively pursuing government employees who talk too freely to the press and leaving the press in no doubt that any success they have in winkling out secrets won’t go uninvestigated.

While the case of Mr Risen may be in the spotlight now, it is only one of several that have belied that original call for transparency and accountability. Under Mr Obama, criminal proceedings have been opened eight times in leak cases, compared with three for all his predecessors combined.

Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ ombudsman, last year noted that that original pledge was still posted on the White House website. It’s still there now: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government… (blah- blah)... transparency... (blah-blah)… public participation.”

She wrote: “Instead, it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and of unprecedented attacks on a free press. The ability of the press to report freely on its government is a cornerstone of American democracy. That ability is, by any reasonable assessment, under siege.”

Public alarm crystalised last year when it emerged that the Justice Department, led by the Attorney General, Eric Holder, had searched the phone records of writers with the Associated Press and in another case tracked the movements of the Washington correspondent of Fox News. In court, a prosecutor described him as a “co-conspirator” in a plot to put government secrets in the public sphere. In fact he was just doing his job.

Mr Risen’s troubles began in 2011 when a court said he was obliged to testify before a grand jury investigating claims that a CIA official named Jeffrey Sterling had been the source of the information in his book. He refused and later the order was overturned by an appeals court judge who contended that “a criminal subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook”. But her ruling was overturned by a District Court in Virginia which again threatened him with contempt.

At a conference in New York in March, Mr Risen said the Obama administration has shown itself to be “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation”. By then his case had reached the Supreme Court, where the Justices declined to intervene.

“Journalists like Jim depend on confidential sources to get information the public needs to know,” the newly installed executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, responded. “The court’s failure to protect journalists’ right to protect their sources is deeply troubling.”

That none of this reflects well on them may be sinking in with Messrs Obama and Holder. The White House has said it will support an effort under way in Congress to pass a “Shield Law” that would place limits on the ability of prosecutors to slap reporters with subpoenas.

Mr Holder meanwhile privately indicated to a group of top editors that he would try to ensure that Mr Risen never actually sees the inside of a cell. “As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” he reportedly told them.

The debate on finding a balance between protecting national security and allowing journalists proper leeway to keep governments honest is a familiar and legitimate one. But who’d have thought  that it in America it would be President Obama who’d do the most to move the scales towards censorship and oppression?