December 17, 2018

Press Freedom

United States

OPC Urges Obama to End Excessive Secrecy

President Barack Obama
White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC  20500

Dear Mr. President:

The Overseas Press Club of America thanks you for your acknowledgment that “journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” which we believe should be the standard for the United States and every other nation.  Recent leak investigations, particularly the probes into Fox News and the Associated Press, have indeed overstepped the customary boundaries that have safeguarded reporters pursuing legitimate stories on what the government is doing, and we are gratified that you have called for reconsideration of these policies.

We remain troubled, however, that you have entrusted this rethinking to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., in effect asking him to investigate himself and his own department.  And we fear that this limited review will not get to the underlying problem: the excessive secrecy that causes officials at all levels automatically to classify any information that might embarrass someone in the government or cause any conceivable problem.

For just one example, consider the recent AP leak investigation.  The wire service, having learned that the CIA had foiled an al Qaeda plot in Yemen to place a bomb on an airliner bound for the United States, at first held the story when told it would pose a security risk.  Then, having been officially assured that the risk had passed, the AP decided to publish on May 12, 2012.  We understand that the White House did ask that the story be held until the CIA’s success was officially announced – in effect, a request to sacrifice the hard-won exclusive story in order to gratify official dignity.  Quite properly, the AP went ahead and published.

Yet, the Justice Department, in seeking the source of the leak, seized the records of more than 20 office and personal phones of AP reporters and editors.  As we have previously protested, this was far from a targeted action based on well-grounded suspicion; instead, it was an obvious fishing expedition for any information that might turn up, and the department has produced no evidence that it had exhausted all other possible sources of the information needed.  And on May 14, despite the White House’s willingness a year ago to announce the story, Attorney General Holder asserted that this breach of secrecy was the worst security violation he had ever seen, one that “put the American people at risk.”

Mr. President, your Administration is far from the first to engage in reflexive over-classification of information.  It is a time-honored bureaucratic instinct.  But it has gone too far, and it is long past time to rein it in.  When this excessive “security” was invoked to call James Rosen of Fox News a “co-conspirator” in violating the Espionage Act, it had a chilling effect on reporters and editors everywhere.  Rosen’s tactics in breaking the story of North Korea’s plans for a missile launch were completely legitimate reporting, and have been accepted for generations by journalists and investigators alike.  We urge you to take concrete action, not only to curb the most recent excesses and excuses of the Justice Department, but to rethink the need for secrecy at all levels of your government.

Respectfully yours,
Michael S. Serrill
President
Overseas Press Club of America