A hollow, unfailing ritual unfolds here in Washington when a new president takes office. His administration, he dutifully intones, will set new standards in openness and access, and make the workings of government more transparent than at any time in US history. What happens in practice is invariably the opposite. Learning from the mishaps of its predecessor, each runs a tighter and more leak-averse ship than the one that went before. And so it has been with President Obama.
For proof, just read the report issued this week by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Normally, the CPJ devotes its attention to the problems of the press in repressive states or war zones, where journalists routinely risk their livelihoods, and often, their lives. But now the committee has focused closer to home, on America itself. And a distinctly worrying picture emerges.
Not, of course, that the US is turning into Syria, Mexico, Pakistan or Russia. This land remains the citadel of a free, unmuzzled press – part of the fabric of democracy, protected by the First Amendment. But the job is getting steadily harder if you're an honest reporter trying to unearth what the government doesn't want unearthed.
Faithful to the ritual, on his first full day in the White House, 21 January 2009, Obama launched an Open Government Initiative, and ordered the federal bureaucracy to be more responsive to press requests under the Freedom of Information Act. It sounded so hopeful: a young, charismatic, thoroughly modern president, seemingly the polar opposite of the secretive Bush administration and its dark enforcer, Dick Cheney. Change was at hand, a captivated media believed. And it was. Just not quite in the sense expected.
Before that January day, under adminstrations dating back to Woodrow Wilson, there had only been three prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act – a First World War measure to prevent American citizens spying for foreign powers – in cases where government employees had leaked classified information to the press. In the past five years alone, there have been no fewer than six: not just the high-profile cases of Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, who handed over hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, and, of course, Edward Snowden, who lifted the veil on electronic surveillance by the super-secret National Security Agency, but several others – less noticed, but in some respects more chilling.
In one, months' worth of phone records and emails of dozens of Associated Press reporters were secretly subpoenaed by the Justice Department as it pursued the leaker behind an AP story on an anti-terrorist operation in Yemen. In another, involving a Fox News story how the US intelligence was monitoring government communications in North Korea ahead of a possible nuclear test, the reporter was described in an FBI affidavit as an "aider, abettor and/or conspirator" of the leaker, meaning that he too could be prosecuted, merely for doing his job. In a third instance, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.
In a way, the seeming paranoia makes sense. After all, 9/11 was a previously unimaginable shock, that exposed glaring weaknesses in the way the US protected itself. People were rightly scared: what if the terrorists hadn't crashed planes into buildings, but got their hands on a nuclear device? A vast national security bureaucracy developed, to the point that four million Americans, working in a parallel secret universe, now have some form of intelligence clearance. Like all bureaucracies, this one had to justify its existence. More and more material, much of it innocuous, became classified and thus off-limits. "The default position of government should be disclosure," a witness told the CPJ. These days the default position seems to be, classify.
Then there's the President himself. Obama is a cool, rational man who expects systems to work. The irrational and unpredictable offend him; witness his irritation with Republicans shutting down the government and threatening to trigger government default. How, he asks aloud, can apparently sane people behave like that? And as with Republicans, so with leakers, and, by extension, the journalists they leak to.
The result, in the words of Len Downie, author of the CPJ report, is an administration whose "war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive... since the Nixon administration". And Downie should know. As a former editor of The Washington Post, he was heavily involved in the paper's coverage of Watergate – to the point, it has been claimed, that he was one of the tiny handful who knew the identity of Deep Throat, the most famous leaker of all.
Nor is it only Snowden's revelations that make the modern American security state appear so Orwellian. After the Manning affair, the Obama administration in October 2011 set up an Insider Threat Task Force, that instigated routine polygraph (lie detector) tests for government workers, and instructed them to flag colleagues who might be acting suspiciously, i.e. talking to the press.
At bottom lies the hypocritical and self-serving distinction made by the Obama administration. Whistleblowing – as in exposing "waste, fraud and abuse" – is fine, and to be encouraged (see 21 January 2009). But when it lays bare dubious or illegal government behaviour, such as electronic snooping on American citizens or the torture of terrorist suspects, whistleblowing becomes a practice that must be rooted out and punished.
Mercifully, there are two saving graces. One is the fact that leaks are not the end of the world. American government has survived the revelations of Bradley and Snowden. The other is that the system, for all its ditigal sophistication, is hearteningly inefficient. There are so many people with security clearances, aka potential leakers, that you can't keep tabs on all four million. Snowden, for instance, said a Times report on Friday, had been identified as trouble by the CIA four years before, but still slipped through the net. There's hope for American press freedom yet.