Democracy Under Siege

Democracy Under Siege

Report finds journalists and lawyers believe surveillance programs prevent them from doing their jobs

By Kevin Uhrich 08/07/2014

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On the 40-year anniversary of President Richard Nixon resigning after his involvement in the Watergate scandal was exposed by two newspaper reporters, today’s journalists and attorneys are finding it harder than ever to do their jobs due to concerns over likely government reprisals.   


This fear has been acutely felt with the ongoing rise of the National Security State. In fact, if the electronic spying that is being done on today’s reporters and their sources was conducted during the time of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Nixon might have escaped blame and completed his second term. 


President Barack Obama, who has prosecuted eight public officials for allegedly leaking information to the press, more than all other chief executives combined since 1917, will likely never suffer such an indignity as a result of a government informant, a whistleblower, no matter what crimes he may commit while in office.


In a recent report issued by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law and American Democracy,” some of the nation’s top journalists said they are under pressure to not only protect themselves from electronic surveillance, but also their sources.


“Every national security reporter I know would say that the atmosphere in which professional reporters seek insight into policy failures [and] bad military decisions is just much tougher and much chillier,” author, former Washington Post editor, New Yorker staff writer and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll is quoted as saying. Cole, who in 1984 served as editor in chief of the Pasadena Weekly, was among dozens of journalists interviewed for the joint report.


“This is the worst I’ve seen in terms of government’s efforts to control information,” said veteran McClatchy News National Security Correspondent Jonathan Landay.


“It’s a terrible time to be covering government,” said NPR’s Tom Gjelten.


“We say this every time there is a new occupant in the White House, and it’s true every time: each is more secretive than the past,” said Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press.


Based on those and other interviews, researchers found that “The government’s large-scale collection of metadata and communications (as revealed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden) makes it significantly more difficult to confirm details for their stories, and ultimately inform the public,” the report states.


“[The landscape] got worse significantly after the Snowden documents came into circulation” in June 2013, said Peter Maass, a senior writer for The Intercept. “If you suspected the government had the capability to do mass surveillance, you found out it was certainly true.”


Thanks in large part to implementation of the Insider Threat Program (ITP), an executive order signed by Obama in October 2011 that makes it a crime for government workers to talk with anyone, including reporters, about even unclassified information, journalists have gone to great lengths to protect their sources, the report states. Efforts at covering their electronic tracks have included use of encryption, working on computers which remain isolated from unsecured networks, and talking on disposable phones, or “burners.” Resorting to these measures has slowed down reporters and prevented important information from being made public, the report states.  


The plight of lawyers, men and women who “have a professional responsibility to maintain the confidentiality of information related to their clients,” is no better.


“As with journalists, lawyers increasingly feel under pressure to adopt strategies to avoid leaving a digital trail that could be monitored; some use burner phones, others seek out technologies they feel may be more secure, and others reported traveling to more in-person meetings,” the report states. “Like journalists, some feel frustrated, and even offended, that they were in this situation,” according to the report.


“I’ll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer to protect my client’s confidentiality,” one lawyer told researchers.


The ACLU and Human Rights Watch are calling on the United States to: 

* End large-scale surveillance practices that are unnecessary or broader than necessary.

* Strengthen protections provided by targeting and minimizing procedures.

* Make public additional information about surveillance programs.

* Reduce government secrecy and restrictions on official contact with the media.

* Enhance protections for national security whistleblowers.


“The work of journalists and lawyers is central to our democracy. When their work suffers, so do we,” Alex Sinha, author of the report, said in a separate story published by the ACLU. “The US holds itself out as a model of freedom and democracy, but its own surveillance programs are threatening the values it claims to represent. 


“The US should genuinely confront the fact that its massive surveillance programs are damaging many critically important rights,” Sinha said.


View the report at


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