Alex Menendez / AP

‘Obama and Holder are not our friends’

Lowell Bergman argues that journalism is under attack from government and corporate power. He’s right

July 3, 2014 12:30AM ET

At the largest-ever gathering of investigative journalists — more than 1,600 watchdogs from America and 40 other countries, in San Francisco last week — one of the best, Lowell Bergman, gave a speech Saturday that everyone in America should know about.

Most speeches to professional groups matter only to those who attend. Bergman’s jeremiad went far beyond the interests of the 5,000 members of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching skills in investigative journalism. His talk at IRE’s annual conference was about your liberties and our democracy, as well as the future of political and economic power around the world.

Bergman, 69, worked for many years as a producer for “60 Minutes,” a job that won him fame when Al Pacino portrayed him in “The Insider,” a 1999 film based on the true story of how tobacco companies lied to Congress and the American people about cigarettes being deadly and the cowardice of CBS News figures in handling this important story. The episode was one of many disappointments that left Bergman scarred and angry.

He is now a professor of investigative reporting at the University of California, Berkeley, who contributes to PBS’ documentary series “Frontline” and The New York Times.

“I'm here today to tell you that we've been living under an illusion,” Bergman’s keynote began.

“We thought that after the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzales years that Barack Obama and Eric Holder were our friends,” Bergman said. “They are not. While the president has said he supports whistleblowers for their  ‘courage and patriotism,’ his Justice Department is prosecuting more of them for allegedly talking to the press or ‘leaking’ than all the other presidents in the history of the United States.”

Such strong-arm tactics to control information are being cheered on, Bergman said, by executives and directors of many multinational corporations who have plenty to hide about commercial bribery, deadly practices and products as well as the ruthless exploitation of workers at home and abroad.

Inconvenient facts

Why should you care about stymieing journalists and prosecuting their sources? Indeed, why should you care if an Egyptian court relying on exactly zero evidence of any crimes sentences three Al Jazeera journalists to long prison terms? Why should you care that five journalists in the United States, and around the world an average 43 a year, have been murdered since 1992 just for doing their jobs?

You should care because if journalists cannot ferret out inconvenient facts and hidden truths, then politicians and corporations can, and will, put in place laws and rules that drain your pockets, reduce your freedoms and threaten your health and that can, in all seriousness, kill you and your loved ones. And if they can operate behind a veil of secrecy, who would know? And what would stop them?

Those we elect, empowering them to act on our behalf, should not be able to shield their actions from scrutiny, escaping all but nominal accountability. Rather, they should conduct themselves with competence and integrity — a result made more likely when they must assume that any and every act could become news.

What astonishes is that a president who campaigned on a promise of ending the extreme secrecy of the George W. Bush administration has become a zealot for secrecy and has fought accountability from the first full day of his administration. Just nine days after his 2009 inauguration I was the first journalist to expose the anti-democratic values of the Obama White House, where people in the press office refused to identify themselves by name.

That news shocked former press secretaries I interviewed who served presidents in both parties. My piece drew condemnation from critics, who said the new administration needed time to get its bearings, but I saw it as a troubling sign of the fervent pursuit of official secrecy that Bergman fleshed out in his address.

‘We are alone’

The Obama administration and federal agencies have gone to absurd lengths to lock up documents. IRE gives an annual Golden Padlock award to the government agency or official that has done its very best to suppress public information. This year two awards were bestowed, to Govs. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Jay Nixon of Missouri, for hiding facts about botched executions, which it turns out are not recent anomalies but have been going on for years.

Today we no longer have a Supreme Court whose majority would vote to protect us.

Lowell Bergman

My personal favorite story was a finalist from among the 40 entries: Holder’s Justice Department blacked out words in a document saying their disclosure would pose a “grave threat” to national security. The words? The Fourth Amendment.

From such absurdities as forcing official spokespeople at supposedly independent agencies to get clearance before answering routine questions (and often refusing to answer) to prosecuting people who leak, the picture that forms reveals an Obama administration policy designed to reduce public access to information the White House would like to keep under wraps.

“We are alone,” Bergman said, asserting that the union, civil rights and antiwar movements that cheered on investigative reporting in the past are no longer formidable forces shaping public opinion in favor of transparency. 

He also criticized journalists generally and IRE in particular, asserting a sustained failure to advocate on behalf of journalists, and their sources, and to fight back against official suppression, including the failure to investigate the murder of any American journalist except the 1976 killing of Phoenix reporter Don Bolles, an IRE founder. That last assertion drew a sharp rebuke from journalists in the room, including those who for 18 months volunteered to work on solving the 2007 assassination of Oakland, California, journalist Chauncey Bailey, whose killers were then convicted and sent to prison.

“Today we no longer have a Supreme Court whose majority would vote to protect us,” Bergman said, citing the 1964 Times v. Sullivan decision over an advertisement with minor factual flaws. But for that ruling, public officials in the South could have used libel suits to block news of the civil rights movement.

Worse, Bergman said, was a press corps that fawns over the White House even though it “operates in secrecy and tries mightily to keep it that way.”

Obama and Holder “have been talking out of both sides of their mouths about transparency and about freedom of expression, as they have conducted the biggest dragnet in the nation’s history searching for our sources.”

Bergman warned his audience, “We are on a collision course with the Justice Department and the White House. They advocate transparency and then they practice repression. Everything has to be approved by the White House — including leaks!"

He ended his talk by detailing the Obama administration’s odious efforts to intimidate journalists by threatening prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, which was never intended to apply to journalists who publish reports for the entire world to read, but to actual spies clandestinely slipping military secrets to foreign governments.

Bergman recounted White House efforts to jail James Risen, the New York Times reporter who refuses to testify about sources for his stories on massive and secret intelligence gathering.

Who, Bergman asked, would stand up for Jim Risen? As president of IRE, seated next to Bergman on the dais, I stood up, as did everyone else. 

Keeping you in the dark

But such displays matter little in Washington. What will make a difference is if citizens demand open and accountable government from their congressional representatives and insist that either this government responds to the people or a new government will be voted in.

A year ago, when National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed its massive and unquestionably illegal surveillance operations — surveillance that had been officially denied again and again — the Obama administration warned of grave threats to national security because of the Snowden leaks.

Those denials were based on the assumption that those who are being watched, and the American people, are foolish enough to believe that actual terrorists are naive.

Does any thinking adult believe that heads of foreign governments did not know we listened in on their cellphone calls before Snowden? Or that the leaders of Al-Qaeda and its like did not know we tracked emails and money transfers? Or that we can use drones to rain down hell on any suspected enemy of the state foolish enough to carry a cellphone in his pocket?

On Monday, two days after Bergman’s speech, the head of the NSA said in an hour-long interview with The New York Times that the damage caused by the Snowden revelations was, in fact, not such a big deal.  Yet Obama’s campaign to tighten the lid, and keep you in the dark, continues.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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