Members Only | January 4, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The United States government was caught spying on American journalists. Does anyone care?

Increasing evidence of the apparatus of the state being levied against reporters should surely lead to outcry from sensible people.

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Freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to hold governments to account is regarded as a critical pillar of democracy. In the United States, it’s supposed to be safeguarded by the First Amendment.

However, especially in recent years, the US government stands accused, maybe more than ever, of allowing increasing attacks on press freedom and the abuse of state power to trample on any notion of journalists being truly able to do their job if they wish to hold the powerful to account – and go against the government line.


This is a far cry from government powers being used to protect the borders. More apparent, though, is that government powers created under the pretext of national security might have been exploited and remain exploited for politically expedient and nefarious purposes.


There are many examples to choose from, which ought to elicit concern, while the problem also clearly transcends party politics – and, by no means, is the problem new. The starkest examples might be US treatment of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.

But ever since its inception following 9/11, the US Department for Homeland Security has descended into little more than a rogue agency that stands accused of spying not just on journalists but also activists and minority communities, too, leading many to demand that Congress make some kind of meaningful reform happen.

These concerns have been thrust into the spotlight amid revelations that a customs border protection unit, known as the Counter Division Network, part of Homeland Security, accessed government data created to track terrorists to essentially spy on dozens of journalists on US soil, including a Pulitzer prize-winning AP journalist.

If such transgressions of press freedom were occurring outside of the US, they might garner far greater nationwide media coverage.


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In July, US Attorney General Merrick Garland forbade prosecutors from obtaining the personal records of journalists following outcry from the news that Trump’s Justice Department had controversially seized records of members of Congress, their aides and journalists.

But now, alarmingly, Jeffrey Rambo, one of the federal agents said to have been conducting investigations and gathering information on journalists, has suggested to investigators that such practices were the norm, rather than any exception to the rule stating, “When a name comes across your desk you run it through every system you have access to,” he said. “That’s just status quo. That’s what everyone does.”

This is a far cry from government powers being used to protect the borders. More apparent, though, is that government powers created under the pretext of national security might have been exploited and remain exploited for politically expedient and nefarious purposes.

Similar transgressions are also believed to have taken place during Obama’s presidency. So the picture being painted suggests press freedom is not under attack from occasional abuses of federal power, but is actually under threat from endemic institutional corruption.


For many observers, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has offered little in the way of any real sufficient explanation following demands for full transparency and accountability from the media.


For many observers, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has offered little in the way of any real sufficient explanation following demands for full transparency and accountability from the media.

Despite possible criminal charges for Rambo and other agents accused of abusing sensitive government databases to access the private information and contact lists of journalists, the DOJ stopped short of pursuing prosecution against any of those allegedly involved.

During the Trump era, verbal attacks by the former president on journalists became the norm, and a source of national embarrassment.  Some have even said Trump’s violent rhetoric aimed at journalists may have presented a green-light for some to physically attack reporters. Indeed, physical attacks on reporters magnified during the Trump era.

But, surely, increasing evidence of the apparatus of the state being levied against journalists should lead to outcry from sensible people, irrespective of political affiliations. As the saying goes, “then they came for the journalists .. and we don’t know what happened after that.”


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For a president like Joe Biden, who campaigned by offering a radical opposite to Trump, and a fresh brand of statesmanship, he now resembles more of a lame political duck, the only difference being that the Democrats still actually have a lot of power in Congress. 

Decisive action on the issue of press freedom, and a serious push to transform and reform the operations of the Department for Homeland Security is not out of reach. But again, such a move requires political determination, and the current status quo suggests that such a miracle can only happen if ordinary decent Americans demand more from their president. There surely must exist the capacity and appetite for that – somewhere. After all, press freedom is not a left, right, blue or red issue. It’s simply about freedom, and arguably one of the most important freedoms of all. It surely must be protected at all costs.


Richard Sudan covers human rights and American foreign affairs for the Editorial Board. Based in London, his reporting has appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. Find him @richardsudan.

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