Washington, DC — U.S. Forest Service staff are under new orders not to speak to news reporters about politically sensitive issues, according to a directive released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This gag order resembles those issued by the Bush administration, belying vows by the Obama administration of government transparency.
In a January 26, 2010 e-mail to employees, Kate Goodrich-Arling, the Public and Legislative Affairs Officer for the Monongahela National Forest, states:
“Partly due to the increased scrutiny surrounding ARRA [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] work and partly due to a relatively new administration, we remain under strict instructions for talking with the media. So, a reminder: If you receive media calls that fall under the following categories you cannot talk to the reporter, but should instead get their contact info and get in touch with me: 1. contacts by a member of the national media on ANY subject 2. contacts by a local or regional reporter seeking information about a national issue including policy and budget issues.”
The e-mail indicates that national media “include the Washington Post, NY Times, US Today, most TV stations, The Weather Channel, etc.” National issues are defined as “any topic related to accountability (like how we're implementing ARRA); or a resource topic that has been in the national media lately, like gas or wind development on public lands….” Located in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, the Monongahela National Forest, like many public lands, is the site for controversial natural gas drilling.
“How can a government be transparent when public servants are forbidden from disclosing facts?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that such gag orders may be far more widespread but are not usually reduced to writing. “This the same type of gag order that we saw a lot during the Bush years.”
Despite proclaiming new levels of transparency and accountability, the Obama team remains rooted in a “message control” mentality that punishes government workers for unscripted candor, as evidenced by:
- Recent action by EPA to censor what its own employees could say in a private YouTube video about weaknesses in cap-and-trade systems for controlling greenhouse gas emissions;
- Restricting federal employees’ ability to provide information to Congress. One indication was a controversial “signing statement” by President Obama in March 2009 asserting his inherent authority to “supervise, control, and correct employees' communications with the Congress”;
- Refusal to resolve whistleblower cases arising from Bush administration efforts to control information, most prominently the case of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers who was removed for honestly answering questions posed by the Washington Post. Scheduled for a federal appeals court hearing next week, the Chambers case is now being prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department; and
- Failure to finalize promised rules to bring transparency to federal science, protect scientists from retaliation and set up pathways for scientists to publish. Draft rules from the White House were due back in July but have yet to materialize.
“If this gag order does not represent administration policy, it should publicly repudiate this directive, reprimand those who are behind it and lay out clear rules authorizing any federal employee to truthfully answer a question,” added Ruch.