Issues & Insights

Report: Obama’s Spying On The Press Was Far More Extensive Than Previously Thought

President Trump might be openly hostile to the mainstream media, but it was the Obama administration that was engaged in a widespread effort to thwart the media. Which do you think is more harmful to a free press?

The full extent of Obama’s actions against the press are only now coming to light.

The Columbia Journalism Review reports on a newly released government document showing that the Obama Justice Department engaged in a far more sweeping effort to spy on the Associated Press than previously believed.

“In 2013, the Justice Department launched a brazen attack on press freedom,” the CJR notes, “issuing sweeping subpoenas for the phone records of The Associated Press and several of its reporters and editors as part of a leak investigation. At the time, the subpoenas were widely seen as a massive intrusion into newsgathering operations. Last month, we learned that they told only part of the story.”

The spying came in the wake of the AP’s reporting on a thwarted Yemen-based bomb plot, which contained classified information about the CIA operation. Months later, the AP learned that the DOJ had vacuumed up two-months of phone records on 21 different lines trying to find the leaker. 

Unprecedented Intrusion

Upon learning this, the AP blasted the Obama Justice Department. AP’s President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the records collected could “reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

Turns out, Pruitt should have been even more outraged. The new report, obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, finds that the DOJ actually collected records on 30 phones. 

The report shows that DOJ attorneys at one point considered subpoenaing records of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and ABC News and “strongly suggests that the attorneys went so far as to obtain ‘telephone numbers and other contact information’ for reporters and editors at those organizations who had worked on articles about the Yemen bomb plot.”

The CJR goes on to say, “Disturbingly, the report does not come close to explaining why the subpoenas targeted the trunk lines of major AP offices — lines which could potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the AP’s newsgathering activities.”

Just One of Obama’s Media Attacks

Bad as this was, it was just one of several examples of the Obama administration’s efforts to bully and silence the few reporters who dared challenge his spin on events.

Obama repeatedly barred Fox reporters from events. At one point, it named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “co-conspirator” in a leak case being pursued under the Espionage Act. Obama’s communications director Anita Dunn said the White House treated Fox News “the way we would treat an opponent.”

The administration also spent seven years trying to force New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources.

Risen, writing in The New York Times in 2016, noted bitterly how “Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.”

In 2013,  Leonard Downie  called Obama’s efforts to control information “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”

When not harassing reporters, Obama officials refused to cooperate with them, racking up the worse record for fulfilling FOIA of any previous administration. Obama even routinely banned news photographers from official events so he could keep an iron grip on his image. Michelle Obama banned the press from her taxpayer-paid China visit.

Also around this time, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to investigate whether newsrooms were meeting their communities’ “critical information needs.”

On Obama’s watch, the U.S. ranking for press freedom dropped to 46th place.

Yet, despite the occasional grumbling by an editor or a reporter here or there, most of these attacks went unnoticed. Whenever Obama spoke to the press, he pretended to be their champions. And the press, in turn, acted like teenagers in love rather than professionals threatened by a paranoid control freak.

In fact, when reporters tried to complain about Obama’s treatment, the reporters themselves often got attacked.

The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik wrote in 2014 that “I have been comparing Obama to Nixon in his disdain for the First Amendment and a free press since 2009, and mainly all I got was attacked — often from long-time colleagues in the media who couldn’t believe the object of their political affection could have such contempt for them.”

So why has the press saved all its ire for Trump, who has — despite his words — been far friendlier to the press in his deeds than Obama? One can only speculate.

(H/t to Ed Morrissey at Hot Air who spotted the CJR story.)

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John Merline

Veteran journalist John Merline was Deputy Editor of Commentary and Opinion at Investor's Business Daily. Before IBD, he launched and edited the Opinion section of AOL News, and was a member of the editorial board of USA Today, where he continues to be a regular contributor. He’s been published in the Washington Post, National Review, Detroit News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He is regular commentator on the One America News Network and on local talk radio. He got his start in journalism under the tutelage of M. Stanton Evans.


    • Obama’s success in no scandals during his administration was partly due to his prosecuting whistle blowers, spying on the press, and controlling the press.

      Fortunately, the truth often comes out, which is why I believe Obama has decided to stay in DC: he didn’t expect Trump would win and allow the truth to come out. So he stayed there to work on keeping the facts from the public. And the funny part of this, is the more the investigate Trump, the more it shows their corruption.

      • I’ve always thought he bought a house there, expecting Hillary to appoint him to the Supreme Court.

      • He couldn’t Obama and Mooch both lost their law licenses ( well asked to turn them in )

  • We’ve lived and are still living in a dark totalitarian PC age. Journalism is largely a memory in the MSM.

  • “Obama’s Spying On The Press Was Far More Extensive Than Previously Thought”
    Obama was gaming the willingly gamed Press as well.
    1) Obama’s Ben Rhodes, the “Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting.” explains the media:
    “The average age we talk to is 27 years old and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” Mr. Rhodes says. “They literally know nothing,” making them easy to spin… ‘by manipulating liberal journalists and think-tank analysts and using the short attention span of social media to obfuscate the truth.
    The Obama administration found it easy to manipulate an “information environment that is mediated less and less by experienced editors and reporters with any real prior knowledge of the subjects they write about.”

    2) Washington Post
    “In May 2016, (Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor) Rhodes boasted, “The Obama administration cooked up a phony story to sell Americans on the Iranian nuke deal, lying that US officials were dealing with ‘moderates’ in the Islamic theocracy who could be trusted to keep their word.” He took credit for helping to create the false narrative Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was a moderate. He justified this by adding, “the public would not have accepted the deal had it known that Iranian hard-liners were still calling the shots.”

    • Regarding the Iranian ‘Moderates’. Many of the ‘Moderates’ believe in the right of Iran to build nuclear weapons.

    • How about we have the former directors of the FBI and CIA and their lawyers prosecuted for professional misconduct of office, prosecutorial misconduct, conspiracy, perjury, falsification of evidence, misuse of government funds and property for personal gain, and deprivation of rights under color of authority, and interfering with a Presidential election. Wouldn’t that be great.

      Has anyone asked Hussein about his role in spying on Trump? Remember Maxine Waters statement in 2013 about this massive database that Obama has? She stated it was more powerful than anyone has ever seen, they have everything on everybody.

  • Someone needs to yank passports from Obama, Clapper, Brennan, Comey, Lynch, Holder and a whole bunch more before they disappear off to Kenya or some other safe haven.

  • ALL dictators set up EXTENSIVE surveillance on their own citizens. Obama’s actions don’t surprise me at all. What surprises me is that whenever MORE and MORE proof of Democrat duplicity is uncovered the media is SHOCKED anew! As though it’s some revelation!

    • Are you ignorant of how Trump has twisted, perverted our democracy for his own to own/run/destroy like he did his businesses?

      Why do conservatives go along with that?

      • I don’t agree with your assertion. But that aside, conservatives “go along” with Pres. Trump because he actually loves America and wants to build it up, rather than tear it down. If that’s perversion, so be it.

    • Early on, his acceptance of that Nobel prize was (to me) a strong indication of his corruption.

  • Kinda lends some credence to speculation that Obama’s Intelligence Departments hatched the Russia/Trump Collusion to cover up their unauthorized spying on Americans through the NSA database.

    • Not that it needed it. It’s as if we’re supposed to forget about the IRS being used politically, and Obama’s Intel chiefs lying about spying on American citizens.

    • And to have a coup. Don’t forget that Obama expected to literally be in power again once Hillary was elected. She was not competent to be President, and he still had reigns of power in the bureaucracy. He fully intended to be President for a third and forth term and Hillary would have been a figurehead president.

    • Ask Maxine Waters about “Hamr” (Hammer).
      Obama was spying on millions of US Citizens!

  • Obama, Holder. Lerner, Lynch, both Clintons, Brennan, Comey, Clapper & hundreds of others all know they committed high crimes and should serve hard time for their felonies. But they all believe they are 10 feet tall and bulletproof. They are protected by their respective unions. They think the fix is in for good. Obama (now the leader of the pack) smirks, winks and boasts, “Yeah, I broke the law and I got away with it, too. So what are YOU gonna do about it, you ignorant chump? Nothing. That’s what. You better pipe-down or I’ll have my fast and furious friends from MS-13 pay you a little visit. Chop-chop.”

    • In spite of knowing and having evidence of crimes being committed by these people, there still isn’t any one of them in prison orange. In spite of all the huff and puff, I think we’re being played.

  • Just more evidence of what a criminal Junta the Obama gang was…..they hated America and what it stood for, they wanted power, they didn’t care about laws and we are still feeling the effects of these crooks.

  • Just more evidence of what ws the criminal junta of Barry Soterro.

  • “So why has the press saved all its ire for Trump, who has — despite his words — been far friendlier to the press in his deeds than Obama?”

    Orange Man Bad, silly.

    • Trump is hated because he kept Hillary from the presidency …. this fact alone drives the LEFT’s insane agenda.

    • Thgat’s hilarious!!

      Why is Rumpy fighting and tearing down our government to save himself from exposure of his life?

      • George , Trump is fighting an intrusion into personal finances, which is not the purview of Congress. Government oversight, does not equal dig into President’s private business , in order to fish for something wrong. Ever heard of the Financial Privacy Act?

      • Yeah, it is. It is their job to make sure Trump stays within the law. He is the first president we have to do that for, apparently, since he is under at least 20 investigations. Having served as Deputy Foreperson on Federal Criminal Grand Jury 06-2 in SF, I can tell you Trump is guilty.

        And the NYTimes report about his finances is a sure signal to start proceedings into that subject on the state level.

  • And yet the people in the media, almost to a person, would fall on their swords for Obama.

  • Gee who would have thought electing a red-diaper baby Marxist would be such a bad idea? Not the other communists in his cabinet, that’s for sure, not James Comey or John Brennan and certainly not Hillary Clinton. Ideologues and opportunists don’t have time to manage the affairs of the U.S. or care about its citizens, just their votes.

  • Chicago Politics on the National level. Why this surprises anyone is beyond me. Elect a Chicago politician and this is what you get.

  • I wonder sometimes how the press has become so secular that they pretty much have forgotten completely their spiritual training in their youth. Evil men do evil things! They sing when they speak and they get the simpleminded swaying to their madness like fawning teenagers, indeed. All these blatant criminal acts and no one has attempted to convict him or that rabid Clinton. Bill not Hillary.

  • I noticed probe attempts into my modems first around 2011. All from Virginia or DC, they didn’t even bother to proxy themselves.

  • Surveillance of the AP may have imposed lots of costs on the AP — among other things, complying with subpoenas is a costly business — but did the surveillance merely amount to harassment? Did anyone find a leaker? Pretty basic question.

  • The press is suicidal and has sold it’s soul for a yearly pat on the head at the Presidential/Journalists Dinner. They love to be told how great and useful they are and to receive awards, deserved or not. News be damned.

  • Obama: “these are not the droids yo are looking for.”

    Press: “These are not the droids we are looking for.”

  • So we’re supposed to believe you are upset with the Obama administrations treatment of the press but Donald Trump who has not only charged numerous leakers but now an actual journalist under the espionage act is totally not that bad? Bad faith, partisan BS like this is what has allowed our press freedoms to be hollowed out. Mr. Merline and his ilk are the reason we have a crippled sycophantic quasi state run media. This is not a defense of a free press just a further justification of the strangling of our freedoms for partisan gain.

  • To borrow a phrase: O will live in infamy when the history is written.

  • The article and approach leave me totally cold. The First Amendment does NOT protect the non-existent ‘right’ of the press to maintain a network of spies and informants, free from constraints of ordinary law. The right to publish information does not imply a right to steal it.

    The US media demands transparency everywhere . . . . except in the newsroom. There, privacy and immunity from any legal consequence apparently must be absolute. The low esteem in which the press is held in every poll derives from this hypocrisy.

    The British press manages to be robust and critical while maintaining respect for the Official Secrets Act.

  • I am left totally cold by both content and theme. The right to publish information is not imply any right to steal it. The Associated Press has no right to to maintain a network of anonymous informants and spies, and it is not desirable. The press demands transparency everywhere . . . except in the newsroom, where an absolute veil of secrecy is demanded. It is this hypocrisy, duly noted by the public, that is the principal reason the media is held in such low esteem.

    The British media manages to maintain a watchful and critical eye over the British government while respecting the Official Secrets Act.

  • The irony of this spying is – the media protected Obama and allowed themselves to be the Pawns. They were used, utilized and controlled. How’s that for the press First Amendment protection?

  • Which is worse? That’s an uninteresting question.

    We have a problem with the media. The media don’t call each other out for inaccuracies and hit-pieces. The media won’t say anything that will irritate their own audiences–even if it’s true.

    The media are pushing out more and more clickbait headlines to get attention.

    There’s absolutely no accountability. When these questions arise about how Presidents treat the press, the press never look to see how they contributed to the treatment.

    The media need to take a good hard look in a mirror.

  • The whole purpose of the attack on Trump for the past two years was to hide what was really going on in the Obama administration. It is now a proven fact that when Democrats make any claims of anything illegal against their antagonists, it is because they are already beyond knee deep in doing the same and need a cover-up.

  • Why aren’t you screaming from the rooftops for Assange’s freedom?

  • I’m confused how the actions of the Obama administration condone the actions of Trump?? Both are an attack on the free press, and if you can’t see that you’re looking at it through politically influenced glasses.
    Did Obama erode press freedom? Probably.
    Is Trump doing the same? Aggressive and personal attacks, no interviews with critical press, denials often with no evidence to back it up of everything negative that is reported on him, a press secretary who hasn’t done a briefing in weeks. That’s all facts that seem pretty clear Trump has no interest in a free press.
    Take a step back and think if it was the other way round would you still feel the same way? Don’t fall in line just because you’re a Republican or a Democrat.
    As an outsider I fear for the future of the US. It feels like Trump might have been right when he said he could shoot someone on 5th Ave and his supporters wouldn’t care. And if that’s true then the country is going down a dangerous path. What’s right should always come become politics.

  • Not a smidgen of scandal because no one will be able to report it before we find it and bury it.

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