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Worst Since Nixon? Report Slams White House Leak Policy

President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement to the press at the White House on September 27.

President Obama arrives to make a statement to the press at the White House on Sept. 27.

President Obama arrives to make a statement to the press at the White House.

The most open and transparent administration in history? That's not how some veteran members of the press see it.

In a new report released Thursday, former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie argues that President Obama has waged the most aggressive "war on leaks and other efforts to control information" since the Nixon administration, creating a "chilling effect" that has significantly hampered the ability of journalists to hold the government accountable.

Downie helped edit The Post's investigations during the Watergate scandal; in the report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit that defends press freedom, he highlights the administration's efforts to deter leaks through the "insider threat program."

The policy, which is currently being implemented across all government departments, requires federal employees to monitor the behavior of their colleagues with access to classified information. If a government official is suspected of releasing sensitive information, they can be subjected to a lie-detector test and reviews of their telephone and email records.

Since 2009, six government workers and two contractors -- including Edward Snowden -- have been the subject of felony criminal prosecutions for leaking classified information to the news media, according to the study. Only three such prosecutions occurred in all previous administrations.

"This is the most closed, control freak administration I've ever covered," David Sanger, The New York Times' chief Washington correspondent, told Downie for the report.

Due in part to this crackdown, the study notes, sources have become less likely to even share unclassified information with reporters.

"Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They're scared to death," New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane explained to Downie. "There's a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It's having a deterrent effect."

The White House has continually pushed back against claims that it is not accessible enough to the press. Officials pointed out to Downie that Obama gave more interviews during his first term than Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did in their terms combined.

They added that the administration is making more information available online, speeding up the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests and limiting the amount of information it classifies as secret.

"The idea that people are shutting up and not leaking to reporters is belied by the facts," Obama press secretary Jay Carney told Downie.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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