The Obama White House faced sharp criticism from a leading press freedom organisation this week, which said the administration’s aggressive leak investigations were producing a “chilling effect” on reporters.

It also said that a new internal government surveillance policy, the “Insider Threat Programme”, was contributing to an environment of paranoia and fear.

In a stinging critique of Mr. Obama’s crackdown on whistleblowers, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in its study on “The Obama Administration and the Press”, underscored recent high-profile cases where the Department of Justice (DOJ) vigorously prosecuted journalists writing about alleged government wrongdoing.

Special mention was made of Mr. Obama’s government going after New York Times reporter James Risen, who shed light on the warrantless intercepts of Americans’ telephone calls as part of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s covert electronic surveillance; and of the DoJ secretly subpoenaing and seizing all records of 20 Associated Press telephone lines in 2012 after it carried a report on the U.S. covert operation against terror groups in Yemen.

Following this, AP president Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter of protest to Attorney- General Eric Holder that “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters… [which]potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities.”

Other investigations focused on newspapers that published stories about the U.S. government’s alleged use of cyber-attacks.

These included New York Times, which published David Sanger’s 2012 articles describing a covert operation codenamed Olympic Games, in which a computer worm called Stuxnet, developed by the U.S., was unleashed on the computer systems of Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.

Facing piercing questions from Congress, the DoJ was said to have responded by “opening aggressive investigations to find and prosecute the unnamed sources” for the stories, with federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) questioning “scores of officials throughout the government… who were identified in computer analyses of phone, text, and e-mail records as having any contact with the journalists involved”.

At this point, a “climate of fear” started to set in, and it was exacerbated by the June 2012 announcement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that he had taken “internal steps to stem leaks”, including requiring employees of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies —including the Central Intelligence Agency, NSA, FBI and Defence Intelligence Agency— to face routine polygraph examinations on whether they had disclosed any information to anyone.

Under review

A classified intelligence report at the time was said to show that 375 unresolved investigations of intelligence agency employees were already under review.

Finally, in November 2012 after a year’s planning by its Insider Threat Task Force, the White House was said to have issued a presidential memorandum instructing all federal government departments and agencies to set up Insider Threat Programmes to monitor employees to prevent “unauthorised disclosure.” The case of whistleblower Chelsea Manning has apparently been cited in these internal memos as the “kind of threat the programme was intended to prevent”.

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