BOB GARFIELD: Hey, remember way back when, before we had an extremely, extremely limited government and when Congress actually passed, you know, laws, when this sound bite sounded both relevant and credible?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because when I’m President, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public, no more secrecy. That’s the commitment I make to you as President.
BOB GARFIELD: When Barack Obama was elected, his transparency pledge seemed like pretty much a slam dunk. How could he do worse than George W. Bush, historic classifier of innocuous government documents, proud evader of the so-called “media filter.” Yet, according to a report released Thursday by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Obama administration has itself been historically and dangerously hawkish about protecting government secrets. Former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie wrote the report, which reveals that the campaign trail promise of a transparent government is a claim that now anyone can see right through. Len, welcome back to On the Media.
LEONARD DOWNIE: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Exactly ten years ago, exactly, President George W. Bush was boasting about avoiding the so-called “media filter,” and he was excoriated. Bush, though he clearly had no love for the press, was not sicking the Justice Department on them to the degree that the Obama administration has.
LEONARD DOWNIE: It’s the way that they’ve been conducted that is particularly intimidating to government sources and to reporters, which is to say that in several of the investigations, secretly, subpoenas were issued that allowed the FBI to seize the records of not just the government officials who were talking to the press but also the reporters themselves, which is, near as I can tell, an unprecedented intrusion into the reporting process.
BOB GARFIELD: Your report quotes David Sanger of the New York Times as calling the Obama White House, quote, “the most closed control freak administration I've ever covered.” Now, Sanger, I don’t believe, was around during the Nixon administration, but the report sounds eerily Nixonian.
LEONARD DOWNIE: That was one of the editors who worked on the Watergate story all those years ago and, you know, that president broke the law and covered up a break-in, and so on and so forth, so that we’re not talking about that. But we are talking about a different kind of control that’s now made possible by technology in this digital age, where this administration can use essentially their own news operation, They actually produce something called West Wing Week, which is a short newscast once a week that shows events going on in the White House that reporters are barred from. It’s a kind of a propaganda campaign that maybe Richard Nixon would have wished he could have done.
BOB GARFIELD: I didn’t ask the Nixon question for no reason. The report describes the Insider Threat Program that the –
LEONARD DOWNIE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: - that the administration has run. Can you describe it?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Yes, this derived from a presidential order after Private Manning had leaked so many documents to WikiLeaks and ultimately to the press. I mean, under it, every single department and agency of the government has to come up with a plan that it communicates to its employees that essentially requires them to monitor their fellow employees to make sure that nobody is providing confidential information to anyone. Washington reporters, especially national security reporters, are saying that many of their sources are simply afraid that their phone communications, their email communications with reporters could ultimately be monitored to identify them, and they are just much more afraid to talk to reporters than ever in these reporters’ memories.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to the White House, and they said, [LAUGHS] no, no, you have this entirely wrong, Len. Just lookee here at all of the reasons we are the transparency administration. What was their argument?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Their argument is that they're making more information available than never before, but a lot of that information is, first of all, self-serving, secondly is, in many cases, information that’s useful to consumers and to businesses, but that's not the same as information that is necessary for reporters to hold the administration accountable. So, for example, television reporters who have typically been able to cover activities going on in the White House are barred from most of them now. And, in fact, most photographs you see of the President doing things in the White House are not from press photographers, but rather the White House photography. But from their point of view, this is, look, look at all the stuff we’re giving you.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s more than one way to obstruct a cat. One is, in the James Risen case, to use the courts to compel him to testify against an anonymous source. And then there's the kind of soft obstructionism, and we’ve had this experience with the Department of Homeland Security just in the past few weeks. We call with some fairly innocuous questions and they say, well, we have to get back to you on that. They never get back to you. It’s, it's sometimes called slow rolling.
LEONARD DOWNIE: I made many attempts to talk to the public affairs person at the Justice Department, and I mean, he never got back to me all, period. And then when I interviewed people at the White House, I said, you know, I’d like to be able to talk to the Justice Department about all these leaks investigations, and they said, sure, and I never heard back. Reporters say they want to know what’s the story gonna say. Then they argue that that shouldn’t be the story. And if they don’t like what they think the story’s going to be, they refuse to give you public information.
BOB GARFIELD: Uh! At the end of your report, you make a number of recommendations to the administration and, frankly, they’re fairly predictable.
You know, limit over-classification of documents, guarantee that journalists won't face prosecution, which I think is something that the Attorney General more or less promised.
LEONARD DOWNIE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Revise Department of Justice rules, so that journalists won’t be served secret subpoenas. But I think we've established, if nothing else, in this conversation, that the government's tactics have been very successful. Why in the world would the administration stop now?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Well, I think when the Associated Press phone and email records were secretly subpoenaed in one of the leaks investigations, the uproar from the press did cause the President to publicly say that reporters should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs, and he ordered the Justice Department to revise the Justice guidelines to make them somewhat more favorable to disclosure than they are now. So what I’m hoping is that this report will stir the media to put some pressure on the administration to be more open about what it’s doing.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm looking at the trajectory of secrecy, let’s say especially since 9/11, and I'm wondering, can this go from bad to worse?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Bob Schieffer told me, when I asked him if this administration was more closed than the Bush administration, that each administration has been more closed in news managing than the one previously. This one is more so than Bush. Bush was more so than his predecessor, etc. So yes, I expect that the next president will try to take it to the next step, taking advantage of technology as much as they can, and it really will be up to the press to keep banging on the door.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Len, I’m gonna let you go now, and I’m just gonna sit here and, and quietly weep.
Thanks for coming back.
LEONARD DOWNIE: Yeah, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Leonard Downie is a vice president at large and former executive editor of the Washington Post. He is author of the report, “The Obama Administration and the Press.”