COLUMN: President Obama’s lasting anti-press legacy must not be overlooked
Former President Barack Obama will be sure to highlight his legacy in the coming months.
Many Americans will applaud his efforts for furthering the cause of LGTBQ+ equality, labor unions and other minorities’ civil rights. Many will point to the success of his economic recovery plan and foreign policy gains. While one act might stand out as his greatest contribution, all of them are towering accomplishments.
There is, however, one piece of his legacy that Obama should stand up and recognize: his immensely dangerous war against American freedom of the press.
The Obama administration systematically destroyed many paths for journalists and the American public to access damning information. He stifled government employees and even dragged journalists to court over access issues.
An initiative known as the “Insider Threat Program” was issued to all federal agencies during the Obama administration. Basically, it is an agency informant program, designed to identify potential whistleblowers. Government documents obtained by McClatchy newspapers show federal agencies created programs to train employees to watch for “high-risks persons and behaviors” that could result in the leaking of information. They also required employees to report those people to their supervisors.
These government documents encourage agencies to revoke security clearances for suspected whistleblowers. An obtained Department of Defense memo said, “Hammer this fact home… leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.” This was clear in the case against Chelsea Manning, before her sentence was commuted by Obama this month. It is also evident in the current pursuit of extradition for Edward Snowden.
The program put forth by Obama has dangerous potential for creating a toxic, fearful environment for all government employees. Supervisors can now use this as a way to retaliate against those that may be trying to expose abuses of power within government agencies. Due to the “Insider Threat Program” and the fear of prosecution, a person could easily be deterred from going public with important information.
Imagine if FBI Agent Mark Felt was scared or threatened and the revelations of the Watergate Scandal were never exposed. Similar revelations are being kept under lock and key due to the same fear of retaliation. Prosecution of the American press may also stop whistleblowers from ever reaching out to journalists.
Beyond trying to silence employees, the Obama administration has aggressively challenged journalists in court to make them reveal their confidential sources. In 2014, the Obama administration won a legal battle against New York Times journalist James Risen, in which the fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that journalists have a privilege that protects them from being forced to testify about their sources in criminal cases.
Risen appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his appeal was rejected. This ruling in circuit court has dangerous implications. The court’s authority covers Virginia and Maryland, home to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency, meaning that in later trials, journalists may be forced to give up their sources under fear of jail time.
Obama made silencing whistleblowers and information leakers one of his top priorities at the expense of American liberties and freedoms. From prosecuting whistleblowers, forming snitch programs and attacking journalists’ rights, Obama created a dangerous precedent.
If President Trump attacks and jails a journalist for doing their job in the same manner, that will be Obama’s fault and quite possibly the most impactful piece of his legacy.