The National Security Agency's electronic surveillance programs are already having a chilling effect on free speech, at least according to a report by the former executive editor of The Washington Post.
"The Obama Administration and the Press," penned by Leonard Downie Jr., whose career at the storied newspaper included time spent as an editor during the Watergate era, says sources for stories involving national security are far less likely to talk to reporters now that mass spying by the NSA has come to light.
Downie -- also an executive with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the press-freedom nonprofit that published the report Thursday -- examined the Obama administration's aggressive policies toward leakers such as Edward Snowden and spoke with 30 experienced Washington journalists about the administration's dealings with the press. The journalists included reporters from ABC, the Associated Press, CBS (parent of CNET), CNN, The New York Times, and the Post.
Downie says there's no evidence the Obama administration is tapping NSA tools like Prism in its efforts to track and prosecute leakers but that the tools are nevertheless a threat to the press' role as a watchdog over government:
At this writing, no connection has been established between the NSA surveillance programs and the many leak investigations being conducted by the Obama administration -- but the surveillance has added to the fearful atmosphere surrounding American journalists and government sources.
"There is greater concern that their communications are being monitored -- office phones, e-mail systems," Post reporter [Rajiv] Chandrasekaran said. "I have to resort to personal e-mail or face to face, even for things I would consider routine."
Downie also quotes the Post's Dana Priest, whose 2011 book "Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State" looked at the huge and secretive national security apparatus assembled after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Potential insider sources "think [the government is] looking at reporters' records," Priest said. "I'm writing fewer things in e-mail. I'm even afraid to tell officials what I want to talk about because it's all going into one giant computer."
It's not just the NSA. Downie's report explores the Obama administration's attitude toward the control of information and the censuring of leakers -- "the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration," he says.
In regard to leakers/whistle-blowers, The New York Times' Scott Shane is quoted as saying:
I think we have a real problem. Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They're scared to death. There's a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It's having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of government.
And Downie taps Harvard Law professor and former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith for some perspective. There's no "perfect solution to this problem," Goldsmith says. "Too much secrecy and too much leaking are both bad. A leaker has to be prepared to subject himself to the penalties of law, but leaks can serve a really important role in helping correct government malfeasance, to encourage government to be careful about what it does in secret, and to preserve democratic processes."
The report also discusses the Obama administration's unprecedented use of social media and the Web. What some might characterize as an effort toward transparency and direct contact with the public is called into question as something more akin to propaganda and, as former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno puts it, an attempt "to end run the news media completely."
Downie says that in its defense, the administration points, in part, to "presidential directives to put more government data online, to speed up processing of Freedom of Information Act requests, and to limit the amount of government information classified as secret." The administration also cites the "declassification and public release of information about NSA communications surveillance programs in the wake of Snowden's leak," Downie notes.
You can read the report in its entirety -- including the various responses from the Obama administration -- here.
Snowden feted in Russia
Meanwhile, Prism leaker Edward Snowden was visited in Russia by four US whistle-blowing advocates, who gave him an award for his efforts and said he looked "great" and was "remarkably centered."
Snowden had pretty much vanished since being granted temporary asylum by Russian President Valdimir Putin this summer.
Except, that is, for the occasional run to the grocery store for a shopping cart full of secrets. (Note: The Christian Science Monitor reports that Snowden's lawyer says, yes, that is indeed Snowden on a supermarket run, though probably not in Moscow.)
Those honoring Snowden were members of the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of former national security officials, says The Washington Post.
They included Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who leaked documents about spending and mismanagement issues at the NSA to a Baltimore Sun reporter, and was subjected to a prosecution that a federal judge later called "four years of hell." (Drake figures in the above mentioned report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.)
Another of the group, former CIA officer turned activist Ray McGovern, said, according to The Wall Street Journal, that Snowden has "made his peace with what he did. He's convinced that what he did was right. He has no regrets and he is ready to face whatever the future holds for him."
Snowden's father also landed in Russia on Thursday and will presumably be secreted away to a visit with his son.
"I have no idea what [my son's] intentions are, but ever since he has been in Russia, my understanding is that he has simply been trying to remain healthy and safe and he has nothing to do with future stories," Lon Snowden was quoted as saying in The Christian Science Monitor.
"I am not sure my son will be returning to the US again. That's his decision, he is an adult, he is a person who is responsible for his own agency. I am his father, I love my son, and I certainly hope I will have an opportunity to see my son," the elder Snowden said.