New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, addressing the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in Boston June 16, said reporters in D.C. have told her that her that the Obama Administration is the worst ever in terms of withholding information and blocking investigations.
“Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades have told me that the environment has never been tougher nor information harder to dislodge,” she said, adding that an NYT reporter “told me the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporters.”
As an indication of the administration’s tough approach she noted that it has six prosecutions underway involving leaks as barred by the 1917 Espionage Act which she said is double such actions in all other previous administrations.
People “fear legal retribution for even talking to reporters” and “reporters fear being hit with subpoenas or even prosecuted themselves,” she said.
Abramson cited the prosecution of Thomas Drake as an example of the type of legal attack that has a “chilling effect” on news sources.
Drake, an Air Force veteran charged with illegally keeping classified documents, lying and obstructing justice, faced 35 years in prison. He and others had criticized the “Trailblazer” National Security Agency project that was to have analyzed worldwide data. The critics thought a much cheaper program was better.
Drake pleaded guilty to one charge of unauthorized use of a government computer in June, 2011.
Abramson described NYT’s battles to obtain information and said reports published in the paper had never endangered national security.
Self-censorship by the paper of what it knew about the 1961planned invasion of Cuba (“Bay of Pigs”) was harmful to the U.S., she noted.
President Kennedy later told NYT columnist “Scotty” Reston that he would have called off the invasion if the paper had printed what it knew, she said.
Abramson, describing numerous NYT investigative stories, said “all desks” at the paper are charged with doing investigations—from sports to science. She described “serious investigative reporting” as the defining attribute of good reporting and said it has never been more important.
Lawyers: Sources Can’t Be Protected
Adding to reporters’ fears of legal attacks were statements by two lawyers at an IRE legal panel to the effect that courts will not support claims of “confidentialty” for news sources. Attendance at the conference was more than 1,000
Andy Siegel, VP and assistant general counsel, CBS, said, “Think twice about promising absolute confidentiality. You can silhouette someone or mask their face, which helps. However, if it gets into court and you protect the source, the court can rule you don’t have a source. The best bet is to get two sources.”
Steve Chung, lawyer for NBCUniversal, said, “There is really no way to protect sources. Reporters should state right up front what they are willing to do for a source.”