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United States

Key Developments

» Aggressive leak prosecutions, secret subpoenas, and surveillance have chilling effect.

» Obama administration is marked by lack of transparency, access.

Press freedom in the United States dramatically deteriorated in 2013, a special report by CPJ found. The Obama administration's policy of prosecuting officials who leak classified information to the press intensified with the sentencing of Chelsea Manning (then known as Pvt. Bradley Manning) to 35 years in prison and the indictment of NSA consultant Edward Snowden. As part of its investigations into earlier leaks, the Justice Department revealed it had secretly subpoenaed the phone records of nearly two dozen Associated Press telephone lines and the emails and phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen. The two cases, and language in the Rosen subpoena that suggested the journalist could be criminally charged for receiving the information, provoked widespread criticism. The backlash resulted in the drafting of revised Justice Department guidelines on press subpoenas and a renewed debate in the Senate of a federal shield law that would allow journalists greater protection for their sources. As the debate moved forward in the Senate, a federal appeals court rejected an appeal by New York Times reporter James Risen in his long-term effort to protect a confidential source, setting up a likely Supreme Court showdown. Snowden's leak of a still unknown quantity of classified information on secret surveillance programs spurred both a national and international outcry and, after a report that Al-Jazeera's communications had allegedly been spied on, caused journalists to fear even more for their sources. The secrecy surrounding the surveillance programs echoed a pervasive lack of transparency and openness across government agencies where, despite President Barack Obama's promise to head the most open government in history, officials routinely refused to talk to the press or approve Freedom of Information Act requests. Journalists faced limitations covering national security-related trials, in cases of alleged terrorism at Guantánamo Bay and in the court-martial of Manning in Virginia.

  • 20

    AP phone lines subpoenaed
  • 8

    Leak prosecutions
  • 20,000-

    Facebook accounts inquired into
  • 5,223

    FOIA requests denied

In May, the Justice Department told The Associated Press that it had secretly seized all records for 20 of the wire service's telephone lines and switchboards three months earlier as part of an investigation into leaked information about a disrupted terrorist plot in 2012. The move was widely criticized by the media and press freedom groups.

An overly broad and secret subpoena:


AP journalists involved in the story that prompted the investigation.


Journalists who used the 20 newsroom, home, and mobile phones whose records were seized.


Months' worth of telephone call records seized.


Since 2009, the Obama administration has prosecuted eight leaks of classified information under the Espionage Act, compared with three under all previous presidents combined, according to CPJ research.

A crackdown on leaks to the press:

April 2010

NSA employee Thomas Drake is indicted on charges of leaking information to The Baltimore Sun about spending and mismanagement issues at the NSA. The government eventually drops most charges and in 2011 he pleads guilty to a misdemeanor offense.

May 2010

Shamai K. Leibowitz, a contracted linguist with the FBI, pleads guilty to giving a blogger classified information about Israel. He is sentenced to 20 months in prison.

May 2010

Chelsea Manning (then known as Army Pvt. Bradley Manning) is arrested and charged with giving government data to the website WikiLeaks in the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history. In August 2013, she is sentenced by a military judge to 35 years in prison.

August 2010

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a State Department contract analyst, is indicted on charges of giving classified information about North Korea to Fox News. The case is ongoing.

December 2010

Jeffrey Sterling is indicted on charges of providing New York Times reporter James Risen with information about a failed CIA effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. The case is ongoing.

May 2012

Former CIA officer John Kiriakou is indicted on charges of disclosing classified information, including the names of two CIA operatives, to two journalists. He pleads guilty and in January 2013 is sentenced to 30 months in prison.

June 2013

NSA consultant Edward Snowden is indicted on charges of leaking a large trove of documents related to secret surveillance programs to The Washington Post and the Guardian, among other news outlets. He is granted temporary asylum in Russia.

September 2013

Former FBI agent Donald J. Sachtleben pleads guilty to leaking information to The Associated Press about a disrupted terrorist plot in Yemen. He is sentenced to 43 months in prison, plus 97 months in prison on unrelated child pornography charges.

In response to the uproar over the surveillance programs revealed by Snowden, Facebook joined other technology companies and released for the first time a report that detailed government data requests for access to Facebook accounts in the first six months of 2013. The company reported a range instead of a number for the United States—which topped the list by a significant margin—due to legal restraints related to classified information. The company was not allowed to elaborate on how many requests were related to national security.

Top government data requests for Facebook accounts:


United States (in 79 percent of them, some or all information given)


India (50 percent approved)


United Kingdom (68 percent approved)


Italy (53 percent approved)


Germany (37 percent approved)


France (39 percent approved)

An Associated Press report found that the U.S. government denied 5,223 Freedom of Information Act requests on national security grounds in 2012 compared with 4,243 the previous year.

CPJ research found that despite Obama's promises, his administration has a dismal record on transparency.

A lack of transparency and openness:

$1.03 million

Amount the Labor Department tried to charge The Associated Press when the news service asked for the secret email addresses of the department's political appointees. The agency later admitted it was mistaken in charging that amount.


News outlets and press freedom and transparency groups that filed a brief asking for greater transparency in the Manning trial, according to the AP.

280 of 350

Media organizations denied press passes to cover the Manning trial, according to a petition signed by news outlets and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

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