U.S. Government Surveillance Undermines Free Press

August 4, 2014

NSA SpyThe American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch recently concluded that United States government surveillance activities pose a significant threat to freedom of the press in the U.S.  The two organizations urge the U.S. government to limit surveillance of communications and personal data.  They also advocate greater legal protection for government “whistleblowers.”

The public interest organizations, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, conducted a survey of lawyers, journalists, and both current and past government officials to assess the impact of government surveillance programs on public access to information.  The survey indicated that potential whistleblowers were intimidated by active government surveillance.  That intimidation generally translated into an unwillingness to engage in whistleblowing activities.

Active government surveillance seems to have a notable chilling effect on public disclosure of important information.  Individuals with access to information regarding government strategies, policies, and operations appear to be increasingly reluctant to leak that information to the media and to the public, fearing that their contacts with journalists and the public will be identified through electronic surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency and other government entities.

This growing reluctance to disclose information seems to be directly connected to the U.S. government’s aggressive use of communications and data monitoring to identify and prosecute whistleblowers.  Widespread awareness of the U.S. government’s surveillance operations contributes to greater reluctance on the part of potential government whistleblowers.

The Obama Administration has displayed a willingness to pursue individuals who disclose confidential government information aggressively.  To date under this Administration, reportedly eight individuals have been charged with violations of the Espionage Act that stem from unauthorized public disclosure of government secrets.

Based on the number of Espionage Act cases initiated and associated public statements, the Obama Administration seems to be notably more aggressive at prosecuting potential whistleblowers than other recent administrations.  This vigorous prosecution makes potential whistleblowers reluctant to provide information to the media.

The ACLU and Human Rights Watch view expansive use of electronic surveillance and active prosecution of whistleblowers to be significant threats to freedom of the press and public access to important information regarding government policies and practices.  In their Report, the organizations observe that intimidation of potential whistleblowers eliminates vital information sources, threatening the existence of effective media oversight of government.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU recommend immediate reforms to protect necessary information sources.  They suggest that U.S. government surveillance policies and operations be significantly reformed to limit their scope.  The organizations also recommend that applicable laws and government practices should be modified to provide government whistleblowers greater legal protection when they disclose important information.

The Report issued by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch is timely and significant.  The calls for immediate reform which it contains provide a useful framework for action.  Without prompt initiatives of the sort advocated in this Report, the ability of the media to perform its duties effectively will be severely threatened, and vital public access to information regarding government will be denied.