Disposable phones with numbers only used one time for a short call. Encrypted emails. Fear of prosecution.
It all sounds like an exciting spy scenario, but these are the measures that some American journalists now have to take in order to do their jobs.
Last spring, federal investigators secretly seized two months of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press. The timing and specific targets indicated that the seizures were related to a government investigation into the leak of information about the CIA’s disruption of a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.
The Obama Administration, despite promising openness and transparency when it took office, has aggressively investigated leaks and has brought more cases against people suspected of providing classified information than under all other presidents combined, the AP said.
Ted Bridis spoke Friday at the Wyoming Press Association annual conference in Laramie. He heads up the Washington, D.C.-based AP investigative bureau and is one of the reporters who had his phone records seized by the feds.
He spoke of sources being more afraid than ever to speak with reporters. Old-timers in the industry say they’ve never seen so such a lack of openness. The encrypted messages and secret phone calls are necessary, Bridis said, to protect sources and reassure them that they will not be outed.
Bridis, too, said he has had FBI agents at his front door delivering subpoenas or legal notices. When such correspondence could easily have been delivered to the AP office, the government chose to engage in intimidation tactics instead.
This kind of witch-hunt reinforces journalists’ mission as watchdogs. With a government administration acting as though it has much to hide and guarding information ruthlessly, it is hard not to think somebody is doing something wrong.
Secrecy breeds mistrust.
National politicians, and even state politicians, routinely attempt to control the messages delivered to the public about their activities, but this goes above and beyond.
Shortly after the government’s spying on journalists, Obama called for the reintroduction of legislation that would limit the circumstances under which the government could compel journalists to reveal information about their newsgathering.
The Free Flow of Information Act was introduced in Congress in May 2013, but it has yet to be passed by the House or Senate. Government transparency website Govtrack.us gives the bill a 14 percent chance of being enacted.
If more nationally-elected or appointed officials exclude people from the decision making processes of government, it is less likely state and local agencies and officials will uphold transparency. Why comply when others aren’t?
This is a dangerous precedent for the future of a free press and the future of a government by and for the people.