Sources drying up for Washington reporters on national security

For President Obama: Mission accomplished.


In conversations with POLITICO, national security reporters and watchdogs said they already have seen increased caution from government sources following revelations that the DOJ had subpoenaed Associated Press reporters' phone records and tracked the comings and goings of Fox News reporter James Rosen at the State Department.

"I had one former intel officer say, 'I hope you're buying 'burner' phones for your sources,' but I think he may have been pulling my leg," said David Ignatius, the Washington Post's national security columnist.

Reporters on the national security beat say it's not the fear of being prosecuted by the DOJ that worries them - it's the frightened silence of past trusted sources that could undermine the kind of investigative journalism that Obama was talking about.

Some formerly forthcoming sources have grown reluctant to return phone calls, even on unclassified matters, and, when they do talk, prefer in-person conversations that leave no phone logs, no emails, and no records of entering and leaving buildings, reporters and watchdogs said.


"The classic leak -- of information or of government documents -- is becoming more and more difficult and more and more rare because the points of contact between reporters and sources are subject to more and more scrutiny," Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, told POLITICO.

"Sources will avoid reporters simply so they don't have to equivocate on a polygraph appearance," he added. "In the 90s, you could call up government officials out of the phone book. In the years after 9/11, that became absolutely impossible."

Some reporters and watchdogs argue that the climate didn't change suddenly but rather slowly over a period of years, the result of intensified leak crackdowns that began during the George W. Bush administration and then expanded under Obama.

It's only going to get worse. AG Holder has launched investigations into the recent NSA leaks, although the agency itself has probably already narrowed the list of people who could have leaked this sensitive information. I'm pretty sure the whistleblowers were under no illusions that they could escape detection. They are banking on being able to successfully claim whistleblower protection under the law. That's a dicey proposition when it comes to the super secret NSA.

The Obama DoJ is proving you don't have to have formalized press censorship to keep the dirty laundry from being exposed. All you have to do is create a climate of fear and intimidation for potential sources who will think twice about talking to a reporter about government secrets.