This month's reporting on enormous NSA surveillance schemes sparked a lot of major concerns about government overreach, but it also made many people forget the May revelation that the Justice Department had moved against the Associated Press (AP), seizing the media outlet's phone records in an effort to root out whistleblowers.
It still isn't clear whatever came of the initial investigation that was used as the pretext for this, but the overall strategy of the Bush and Obama administrations that underlies such moves has had a calamitously real impact.
Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt detailed that impact Wednesday, noting that the revelation of the Justice Department's seizure has scared off a large number of its government sources, and that many would-be whistleblowers now seem afraid to even talk to the media, let alone provide them with inside info. Even talking to America's largest wire service is now seen as risky.
The problem neither begins nor ends with the AP. The Justice Department has been playing fast and loose with the law in efforts to stifle whistle-blowing for years, and the FBI has been treating surveillance of news organizations large and small as a matter of course for years. FOIA requests showed that in 2004, the FBI conducted surveillance on Antiwar.com as a potential threat to "national security" over reporting. This year they went after Fox News' James Rosen for a report on North Korea.
Over the years, media surveillance has gotten broader and broader, and the rhetoric used against whistleblowers has grown more bellicose, with congressmen now openly calling for not just crackdowns on the leakers, but on journalists who inform the public of their actions.
Pruitt notes that the DOJ's moves against the AP were illegal, but of course that is entirely beside the point. The action wasn't a one-off overreach by one over-zealous official, but a pattern of hostility toward media and whistleblowers that might embarrass them by informing the American public of their more shameful actions.
Anyone who discovers government abuse now has to recognize that even though there are laws meant to protect whistleblowers, it is government policy to persecute and prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and then some.
An informed public is vital to a functioning democracy, and keeping the public informed is becoming more and more dangerous. It always required bravery to stand up and reveal government illegality, but as the risks rise, the amount of bravery we must ask of our whistleblowers grows proportionately.
The NSA schemes, from PRISM to the Verizon meta-data seizures, make this problem all the greater, as would-be whistleblowers must now also contend with the reality that not only the media's associates are being watched, but everyone else is as well.
Dramatic reforms are clearly needed, not just reforms of the government's policy of punishing leakers but of the wholesale surveillance state that makes identifying those leakers possible. The government has clearly shown it can't be trusted with this information, and salvaging a functioning media will be all but impossible if these programs continue unabated.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.