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article imageU.S. gov't surveillance undermining journalists, lawyers

By Martin Laine     Jul 29, 2014 in Politics
Though its official mission is to thwart terrorist threats, the massive U.S. surveillance program is having a chilling effect on journalists and their sources, and lawyers and their clients, according to a report issued Monday.
The 120-page report, issued jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, found that government surveillance is “undermining media freedom and the right to counsel, and ultimately obstructing the American people’s ability to hold their government to account.”
“The US holds itself out as a model of freedom and democracy, but its own surveillance programs are threatening the values it claims to represent,” said Alex Sinha, author of the report, in a statement of the Human Rights Watch website. “The work of journalists and lawyers is central to our democracy. When their work suffers so do we.”
The report is based on interviews with 92 individuals, including journalists, lawyers, and government officials.
Cultivating confidential sources is essential for any journalist investigating a story. They are the essential tool that cuts through the façade of prepared statements and “spin,” to get to the heart of a story to better inform the public. But now that the government is cracking down on unauthorized leaks and has the ability to gather and store records of emails, phone calls, and every other type of electronic contact, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to make contact with possible sources.
There are new official restrictions on contact between intelligence officials and the media, known as the Insider Threat Program, which requires federal employees to report on each other for any “suspicious” activity.
“People are increasingly scared to talk about anything,” said one unidentified Pulitzer Prize winner.
Whereas a trusted reporter’s promise of confidentiality was once good enough for a source, journalists find themselves having to take extraordinary measures to keep their contacts secrets, if they can even find someone willing to talk. This can include the use of disposable cellphones, increasingly sophisticated encryption programs, and secret person-to-person meetings — anything to keep out of sight of the government’s surveillance capability.
The result is that the United States has steadily dropped in the standings of the World Press Freedom Index. Issued annually by the organization Reporters Without Borders, the United States now ranks 46th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, on a par with Romania and Haiti. Topping the list in terms of a free press is Finland, followed by Norway and the Netherlands.
Lawyers and their clients are experiencing a similar erosion in their ability to maintain confidentiality, especially in those cases involving national security. They find themselves using many of the techniques journalists use to communicate with witnesses and clients. Many of the lawyers interviewed expressed outrage at the violations of lawyer-client confidentiality.
“I’ll be damned if I have to start acting like a drug dealer in order to protect my client’s confidentiality,” said national security defense attorney Tom Durkin in a Time magazine article.
“We are fearful that our communications with witnesses abroad are monitored and might put people in harm’s way,” said Jason Wright, who has defended Guantanamo detainees, in the Time article.
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