Obama admin could have been much tougher on whistleblowers, leakers – Holder

February 18, 2015

Outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Tuesday that his department has acted prudently in prosecuting government leaks. Journalist James Risen, a target of the crackdown, disagreed, calling Holder “the nation's top censorship officer.”

Despite pursuing more World War I-era Espionage Act cases against government whistleblowers than any other attorney general in history, Holder indicated that his term leading the US Department of Justice (DOJ) should be remembered for the leniency shown to government employees, contractors, and journalists involved in circulating unauthorized government disclosures.

“We have tried to be appropriately sensitive in bringing those cases that warranted prosecution,” Holder said before reporters at the National Press Club.

“We have turned away, I mean, turned away substantially greater number of cases that were presented to us where prosecution was sought.”

Whistleblowers charged under Espionage Act include John Kiriakou, who was released from prison this month after being the only government employee to publicly disclose the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program; former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling; former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake; former FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz; former State Department contractor Stephen Kim; former US Army Private Chelsea Manning; former Navy contractor James Hitselberger; and former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Holder defended the Justice Department’s revamped policies for handling leaks, touting their implementation during Risen’s case as an example of “how the Justice Department can proceed,”according to The District Sentinel.

Risen, a New York Times reporter who drew the Obama administration’s ire for revelations featured in his 2006 book State of War, faced prosecution until the last minute, as he refused to testify against his alleged source, CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling. Late last month, Sterling was convicted of all charges against him under the Espionage Act.

New York Times investigative reporter James Risen (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

New York Times investigative reporter James Risen (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Risen took to Twitter on Tuesday to tear into Holder, unloading several tweets claiming Holder had"wrecked the First Amendment," had destroyed reporters’ constitutional privilege, and had signaled "to dictators around the world that it is okay to crack down on the press and jail journalists."

Holder said Tuesday that the cases were vital for US national security, as his DOJ pursued “people who are disclosing, for instance, the identities of people who work in our intelligence agencies.” Holder then struck an intimidating tone, posing to the press whether its coverage of America’s national security secrets was even appropriate. “I also think there’s a question for you all, for members of the press,” he said. “As we’ve asked ourselves when it comes to national surveillance, simply because we have the ability to do certain things, should we?” Holder offered an admittedly “extreme example,” asking whether a reporter should have revealed the Manhattan Project regarding the development of a hydrogen bomb, later used on Japan to punctuate an end to World War II, ushering in the Cold War. “There’s a question the members of the press should ask about whether or not the disclosure of the information has a negative impact on the national security of the nation,” Holder said. The Obama administration’s suppression of government whistleblowers and news gathering in general have been well documented by RT.

Outside of the Espionage Act cases and their ramifications for journalists, the DOJ was found in May 2013 to have initiated a vast surveillance operation against the Associated Press. Reacting to the revelations, the DOJ created new policies legislating what constitutes a legitimate journalism outfit.

News photographers have been highly limited in their access to the president, as the White House has employed its own photographers that release photos to the press, effectively tailoring Obama’s image with the public.

The White House has been accused of censoring pool reports, circulated among thousands of recipients ranging from news outlets and agencies to congressional offices, but not before first being vetted by White House staffers ahead of release.

In October 2013, the Center to Protect Journalists criticized the administration for curtailing press freedoms.

“Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press,” the group wrote, adding, “Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”

In a July 2014 letter, 38 journalism groups criticized the administration for severely curbing access to federal agencies and a general politically-motivated suppression of information.

In September 2014, the AP's Washington bureau chief, Sally Buzbee, pointed out several ways in which the Obama administration is stifling public access to information – including keeping reporters away from witnessing any military action the United States takes as it battles Islamic State extremists in the Middle East.

These efforts don’t even mention the government’s handling of the Wikileaks disclosures or the National Security Agency’s global spying regime, first revealed through leaks made by former government contractor Edward Snowden in June 2013.

On Tuesday, Holder was asked about a possible plea deal for Snowden, currently in political exile in Russia.

“I’ll simply say no comment,” Holder said to laughter among reporters in attendance.


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