Son, It Was Obama We Journalists Had to Fear

“I was driving my then 11-year-old son somewhere, probably soccer practice, when he burst into tears and asked me, ‘is Donald Trump going to put you in prison?'” So claimed the embarrassingly serious Olivier Knox, the White House Correspondents Association president, at the association’s annual grub fest on Saturday.

What Knox should have said is, “No, son, President Trump is at least open in his hostility. The First Amendment gives him the same rights as it gives us. It was President Obama’s dirty, covert war on the media that had me worried.” At this point, little Knox should have asked, “Did this sneaky, back-door attack prefigure Obama’s subversion of the Trump candidacy?” Now, there is a correspondent’s dinner I would pay to watch.

In May 2010, when Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Press Freedom Law, few of America’s reporters and editors were aware that Obama as president represented the single greatest threat to press freedom in their professional lives. True to his reputation as messiah, Obama would soon make even the willfully blind see.

In May 2013, the illusion of an unfettered press disappeared like a magician’s bunny. It was in this month that the Associated Press learned Obama’s Justice Department had quietly seized all of the relevant records for twenty AP telephone lines a year earlier. These included the personal and professional lines of several reporters.

The seizure had to do with AP reporting on a covert CIA operation in Yemen. Although only five reporters were involved in that story, more than one hundred reporters used the lines and switchboards whose records were seized. AP President Gary Pruitt wrote Attorney General Eric Holder that the “government has no conceivable right to know” the content of those records. On Face the Nation, Pruitt boldly assessed White House strategy, “I know what the message being sent is: If you talk to the press, we’re going after you.”

A coalition of some fifty newsgathering organizations promptly came to the AP’s defense. In a barely polite letter to Holder, the coalition accused him of ignoring the Department of Justice’s decades-old guidelines governing subpoenas of journalists and news organizations. The authors of the letter reminded Holder, “The approach in every case must be to strike the proper balance between the public’s interest in the free dissemination of ideas and information and the public’s interest in effective law enforcement and the fair administration of justice.”

The DOJ did none of the above. Its attorneys went behind the AP’s back, failed to negotiate the scope of the subpoena with the AP, and refused to explain what threat to the integrity of the investigation made the subterfuge necessary.

An even more disturbing story broke a week later. It seemed that for the prior three years the DOJ had been secretly dipping into the personal and professional communications of Fox News Washington correspondent James Rosen. The case involved Rosen’s interactions with a State Department contractor monitoring North Korea’s nuclear program.

What troubled the media community most about the DOJ response was the use of search warrants to investigate a reporter and the threat to prosecute him under the terms of Espionage Act as an “as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.”

“Search warrants like these have a severe chilling effect on the free flow of important information to the public,” First Amendment lawyer Charles Tobin told the Washington Post. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”

On May 16, 2013, a few days after the AP story broke but a few days before the Rosen story did, Obama took a moment during a joint press conference with the Turkish prime minister to say he would “make no apologies” for investigating national security leaks that threatened the well-being of the American military.

“I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed,” Obama said defiantly.

This was one of those finesses that served Obama so well with the uninformed. In fact, the probes dug much deeper than “national security.” A few weeks later, in June 2013, the McClatchy newspapers broke the story of an “unprecedented” Obama administration initiative launched in 2011 in the wake of the Bradley (or, in NYT-speak, “Chelsea”) Manning leaks.

Much like Nixon’s “plumbers,” the operatives of  “Insider Threat Program,” as it was known, worked to suppress leaks in the national security agencies. Unlike the plumbers, however, the Insider Threat people extended their mission into the seemingly benign regions of education, agriculture, and social security.   

Scarier still, in the Maoist spirit of the Obama administration, everyone was expected to plumb. The administration obligated employees to turn themselves and their coworkers in for failing to report leaks. Specifically, the program’s strategic plan mandated supervisors to “penalize clearly identifiable failures to report security infractions and violations, including any lack of self-reporting.”

None of this, of course, stopped Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who first went public with his massive document dump a week before the McClatchy article. What the Internal Threat Program could do, however, was discourage employees from reporting routine waste and corruption.

“You don’t get people speaking up when there’s wrongdoing,” said Liana Greenstein former CIA case officer. “You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”

Most of all perhaps, the Internal Threat Program discouraged disgruntled employees from talking to the media. “The suspicion has to be that maybe these ‘leak’ investigations are less about deterring leakers and more about intimidating the press,” opined the Wall Street Journal.

Liberal First Amendment lawyer James Goodale was harsher still. In a Times op-ed Goodale declared that “President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom” In liberal circles, the Nixon comparison was very nearly as damning as the Hitler one. Ouch!

Unlike Richard Nixon, who had good reason to distrust the media, Obama has no apparent motive for his secrecy other than that it gave him the space to do as he pleased and get away with it. “They feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage,” admitted veteran correspondent Josh Meyer in speaking of the White House press office. For all the love that the media showered on the Obama administration, what they got in return, said Meyer, was “across-the-board hostility.”

In the age of Obama, however, many in the media had a hard time holding a grudge, and Obama knew it. Weeks after the Rosen story broke, the president made what the New York Times called a “ringing affirmation of press freedom.” The Times reported that Obama was “troubled” by the revelations of DOJ mischief and that wingman Holder -- take out those hankies -- “shared those concerns.” The Times summarized the speech with the redemptive headline, “Obama, Offering Support for Press Freedom, Orders Review of Leak Investigations.”

Obviously, not everyone in the media was as easily appeased as the Times editors, but too many were. Six months after Goodale’s blistering op-ed and three months after the release of the devastating CPJ report, New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick went unchallenged on the Charlie Rose Show when he listed as one of Obama’s many accomplishments “the fact that there's been no scandal, major scandal, in this administration, which is a rare thing in an administration.”

For all its merits, the CPJ report did not use the word “scandal” or any of its derivatives either. It has been said that a political incident becomes a scandal only when the Times calls it a “scandal” on its front page. Despite Obama’s shocking disregard of his commitment and the media’s acknowledgement of the same, the Times editors chose to reserve the S-word for bigger things like, say, a president’s failure to attend a dinner where even eleven-year-olds get to ding him.

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