United States


69th General Assembly

Denver, Colorado

October 18 – 22, 2013

In his first term, President Barack Obama surprised most media activists by aggressively prosecuting government whistleblowers under espionage laws, despite his pledge of open and transparent government. Obama drew praise in November 2012 when he signed new whistleblower protections into law. In July the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) tightened the guidelines its prosecutors use in investigations involving the news media, but media watchdogs remain concerned about the direction of media freedom in the country. The government seeks to claim that a reporter’s privilege does not exist for national security reporters. This has led to a crackdown against whistleblowers that appears designed to restrict all but officially approved versions of events and information, prompting calls for a Shield Law to give formal legal protection to reporters. The Obama administration has prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the 1917 Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined going back to the Reagan administration. The indictments of six individuals under the Espionage Act have drawn criticism from those who say the president’s crackdown chills dissent and curtails a free press. In January John C. Kiriakou became the first CIA officer sentenced to prison for leaking classified information to the media. Kiriakou, 48, was sentenced to 30 months prison for releasing the name of an undercover CIA agent to a reporter as well as information about the use of the banned interrogation technique known as water-boarding. In August Private Chelsea (Bradley) Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail and dishonorably discharged from the US Army for leaking classified information to the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. In June 2013, US federal prosecutors charged computer specialist and former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. Meanwhile U.S. media companies have come under attack from Chinese hackers. In February the cybersecurity company Mandiant Corp published a report that allegedly traced a series of cyberattacks on U.S. media companies to a Shanghai-based unit of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. After 3 years of pre-trial detention the former military intelligence analyst US Army Private Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail in August meted out today to U.S. on charges including 10 counts of espionage and theft. Manning was convicted of disclosing hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents to the anti-government secrecy group WikiLeaks. Manning faced 22 charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, war logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars, and videos of US military actions. He was acquitted of the most serious count, that of "aiding the enemy", which accused him of arranging for state secrets to be published on the internet knowing that al-Qaeda would have access to them. Some groups condemned the prosecution of manning saying it was a blow against American democracy, claiming that the press must be free to report government abuses. Edward Snowden, a fugitive computer specialist and a former CIA and NSA employee, disclosed classified details of several top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to London’s The Guardian newspaper in May 2013. In June 2013, US federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. Snowden fled the United States prior to the publication of his disclosures, first to Hong Kong and then Russia. The Obama administration's aggressive war on leaks and other efforts to control information are without precedent, according to 30 experienced Washington journalists interviewed for a new report released in October by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The report found that despite Obama's promise to head the most open government in American history, White House policies have chilled the conversation between journalists and their sources. The report-"The Obama Administration and the Press: Leak investigations and surveillance in post-9/11 America," found that the administration's prosecution of suspected leakers, combined with broad electronic surveillance programs, have left government officials deeply wary of talking to the press. The report describes how the government has conducted more than twice as many criminal prosecutions for alleged leaks of classified information than all the previous administrations combined. CPJ made a series of recommendations that accompany the report. CPJ called on the Obama administration to "affirm and guarantee that journalists will not be at legal risk or prosecuted for receiving confidential and/or classified information" and "be more forthcoming about the scope and nature of the National Security Agency and other surveillance activities as they are being applied to domestic and international journalists," among others. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has tightened the guidelines its prosecutors use in investigations involving the news media, but media watchdogs remain concerned about the direction of media freedom in the U.S.. The new guidelines announced in July were designed in response to criticism levied over the handling of controversies involving the seizure of Associated Press telephone records and the search warrant for a Fox News reporter. The new guidelines restrict the use of subpoenas and search warrants for journalists, but do not address the lack of protection for journalistic sources. “These revised guidelines will help ensure the proper balance is struck when pursuing investigations into unauthorized disclosures,” US Attorney General Eric Holder stated following the announcement of the rules. Holder held seven meetings with approximately 30 news media organizations as well as with First Amendment groups, media industry associations and academic experts, according to the Department’s website. The new rules also establish a new review committee that would advise the Justice Department’s top officials on how to handle media-related investigations, as well as make an annual statistical report detailing those inquiries. Federal prosecutors can no longer obtain a search warrant for reporter’s records unless the reporter is part of a criminal investigation. Under the new rules, the delay of notifying news organizations of such searches will be prohibited. Department officials must now provide advanced notice of at least 90 days to news organizations if they intend to search reporters’ records, unless “advanced notice and negotiations would a clear and substantive threat” to the investigation or “risk grave harm to national security.” If that is proven, the Attorney General can agree to delay notification for 45 days. In an effort to obtain a search warrant for the records of Fox News reporter James Rosen, officials named the reporter a possible “co-conspirator” in the leaking of classified information. Rosen had reported on classified information involving North Korea revealed to him by a source in the Department of State. That would no longer be permitted under the rules. A coalition of 46 news media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to withdraw a Department of Justice subpoena issued to New York Times reporter James Risen in a criminal case. The coalition letter supports a July 25 letter by Risen's attorneys requesting the same action. It argues that pursuing Risen's testimony is inconsistent with the Justice Department's new policy on media subpoenas, as announced by Holder in a report to the president on July 12. On July 19, a two-to-one ruling from the fourth circuit appeals court in Richmond, Virginia found that New York Times reporter, James Risen, must give evidence at the criminal trial of a former CIA agent, Jeffrey Sterling, who is being prosecuted for unauthorized leaking of state secrets. Sterling is charged with leaking information to Risen in violation of the Espionage Act. The information was made public in a chapter in Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which revealed a covert operation involving an attempt to supply Iranian officials with flawed nuclear weapons plans. Risen has said he is committed to protecting his sources. The government crackdown on whistleblowers has highlighted what some media watchdogs say is the need for a comprehensive, federal shield law in the U.S., to give journalists protection against being forced to disclose confidential information or the identity of a source. On May 15, 2013, the White House asked Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) to reintroduce a version of the Free Flow of Information Act, a proposed shield law that he championed in the 2009 Senate. Another version of the shield law has also been introduced in the House of Representatives. The 2009 Senate version favored by the White House maintains broader exemptions for disclosing sources and confidential information than its House counterpart. For example, the Senate bill contains major exemptions for any leak-based reporting that affects national security. It would specifically exclude WikiLeaks and other internet-based groups that do not fit the strict language crafted by lawmakers to define a news organization. Similarly, the language defining who qualifies for protection as a journalist would not cover some online reporters, bloggers and freelance writers, depending on their contractual status. News programming produced by publicly-funded outlets such as Voice of America (VoA) and TV and Radio Marti will now be broadcasted to American audiences for the first time following the repeal of a law that had prohibited such content from being widely viewed within the United States. Congress repealed provisions of a law that had long restricted the domestic broadcast and dissemination of government-funded news programming intended for foreign audiences. Critics have often viewed VoA and TV and Radio Marti as government propaganda unsuitable for domestic audiences. Critics of the restrictions successfully argued that the old law violated government transparency.