NEW YORK — Revelations over the past few years about how U.S. security officials have the ability to track people through phone, email and other electronic records are making it harder for journalists to report on what the government is doing, two human rights groups say.
Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report issued Monday that access to data as detailed in leaks by former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden, coupled with the Obama administration’s prosecution of people for leaking classified information, is having a chilling effect on reporters.
The groups are calling on the administration to be more upfront about the data it is collecting and how the information is used, and to increase protections for journalists and whistleblowers.
The same government access to information is eroding the ability of lawyers to protect the confidentiality of its contacts with criminal defendants, the report concludes.
Ninety-two people, including 46 journalists, 42 lawyers and some present or retired national security officials, were interviewed for the report.
While journalists aren’t being prosecuted for doing their jobs, news about the scope and type of information available to the government has forced many journalists to change how they work, said Alex Sinha, the report’s author. Several say that fewer sources are willing to talk to them because they fear the consequences, he said.
Reporters are turning to encryption technology that scrambles electronic communication with sources, although they worry the mere fact the government knows they are using encryption will raise suspicions. To counter monitoring of cellphones, some say they use throwaway phones. One reporter said he calls many sources at the time of a big story, just to protect the identity of the ones he used. Face-to-face contact is increasingly preferred.
One reporter, ABC’s Brian Ross, said he’s been tipped to say, “I’m a U.S. citizen, are you?” at the beginning of cellphone conversations because of a legal prohibition against monitoring calls by citizens.
It all contributes to drying up the flow of information, journalists said. “People have to work harder, it takes longer, and you … won’t have as many stories,” Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press, said in the report.
An AP story in 2012 on a U.S. operation in Yemen led to a federal investigation in which the government seized AP phone records in its search for the source of information.
The administration’s efforts to go after leakers and require government workers to report colleagues they suspect of releasing sensitive material make it less likely that potential sources will want to speak to reporters, Sinha said.
Security officials interviewed for the report stressed the need for the government to keep up with new technology to protect citizens in a dangerous world, and expressed some skepticism about how much journalists are being hurt.
“The First Amendment seems quite alive and well in America today,” a senior FBI official told the organizations.
Well-publicized leaks by Snowden and Chelsea Manning undoubtedly leave people in national security with the impression that sensitive information is getting out to reporters, but that’s deceptive, Sinha said.
“It’s misleading to think that two big leaks over the past three years is the same as having many smaller leaks across different agencies that provide us a better picture of what our government is doing,” he said.
Legislative efforts are underway to try and prevent security officials from routinely collecting phone records and to restrict the amount of business records the government can keep. The organizations support those efforts.