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Mass Surveillance, Leak Investigations & the Chilling Effect Against Journalism

A number of American journalists, who work for small and large media organizations, contend that the spike in leak investigations is tied to government mass surveillance. They report experiences with sources, who are no longer willing to speak to them. They have found it increasingly difficult to build new relationships with sources. A chilling effect has made it exceptionally difficult to determine what to do to maintain confidentiality, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In response to revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden of dragnet and often indiscriminate surveillance, HRW and the ACLU decided to survey various journalists and lawyers, who have felt the climate shift as the scope of surveillance has been revealed and as President Barack Obama has launched more leak prosecutions than any previous American president.

I’ll address what is in the report on journalists and hopefully cover the part of the report that details the effect on lawyers in the coming days.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a report last year that made the connection between leak investigations and mass surveillance. This report put together with interviews from journalists brings renewed attention to how the war on leaks by the Obama administration has become a much wider war on information that has impacted journalists as well as whistleblowers.

From the report [PDF], “Many journalists said that the government’s increased capacity to engage in surveillance—and the knowledge that it is doing so on an unprecedented scale—has made their concerns about how to protect sources much more acute and real.” They believed that the increased number of leak investigations was connected to government surveillance.

Peter Maass, a senior writer at The Intercept, asserted, “Leak investigations are a lot easier because you leave a data trail calling, swiping in and out of buildings, [and] walking down a street with cameras. It’s a lot easier for people to know where you’re going and how long you’re there.” And, Barton Gellman, who received documents from Snowden, said, “It used to be that leak investigations didn’t get far because it was too hard to uncover the source, but with digital tools it’s just much easier, and sources know that.”

These statements are not just conjecture. Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general of the National Security Division of the Justice Department, told Senate intelligence committee in February 2012, “It bears noting that recent advances in technology have provided new opportunities for investigators, in terms of both identifying leak suspects and building successful prosecutions.”

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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