Dec 20, 2013 · 4 minutes

The White House yesterday published the findings of a review panel tasked with suggesting reforms to the National Security Agency. The 300-page report has been alternately praised for its breadth and derided for its hesitance to suggest more reforms or address the constitutionality of the NSA’s actions.

Besides suggesting that the NSA should be unable to hold bulk telephone records, and disputing reports that the NSA has weakened Internet security standards, the report also underscores the Obama administration’s complicated relationship with the press.

The report repeatedly recommends that the government increase transparency about its surveillance efforts. It also suggests that technology companies be granted the ability to disclose the number and nature of government requests for customer data. (This is likely to please companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which have repeatedly requested that the government allow such disclosures.) Yet it also devotes nearly one-quarter of its recommendations to preventing whistleblowers from leaking government information.

Put another way: Transparency is fine, so long as it’s “transparent” in exactly the way the government desires. That isn’t transparency -- it’s a commitment to publishing more press releases.

This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has publicly advocated for transparency while secretly fighting whistleblowers. In May, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had seized the records of more than 20 phone lines used by its reporters in April and May of 2012. The publication was unsure of how many reporters used the phones, but said that more than 100 reporters work in the office in which they were used.

Arnie Robbins, the executive director of the American Society of News Editors, described the implications of the seizures:

On the face of it, this is really a disturbing affront to a free press. It's also troubling because it is consistent with perhaps the most aggressive administration ever against reporters doing their jobs — providing information that citizens need to know about our government.
In July, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered New York Times reporter and author James Risen to testify as to whether or not former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling was a source for his book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

In October, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a special report detailing the Obama administration's relationship with whistleblowers and the press. The report mentions the Associated Press and New York Times scandals as well as the Obama administration's fondness for charging government employees and contractors under the 1917 Espionage Act.

As the report's author, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr, writes:

The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in the  The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.
Scott Shane, a New York Times national security reporter, added:
I think we have a real problem. Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. 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. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.
More recently, a group of reporters asked the White House to allow more access to the President while he is conducting official business, as when he traveled to the funeral of Nelson Mandela. They were previously barred from speaking to the president during his flight on Air Force One.

Given that this administration doesn't want reporters to speak with the President while he flies to a state funeral -- are we truly meant to believe that it will be more chatty about potentially unconstitutional programs through which it surveils billions of people in secret?

The great irony is that this report would probably never have been published if Edward Snowden hadn't leaked the documents he gathered to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman. Those documents, and their publication in outlets like the Guardian and the Washington Post, will be directly responsible for any reforms made to the NSA. Yet many of those reforms are focused specifically on preventing such leaks from reoccurring.

These documents revealed the NSA's attempts to intercept information as it travels between data centers, to infiltrate online communities like "World of Warcraft," and to investigate loved ones with the Agency's vast resources. They showed that the government has sought to weaken encryption standards, contrary to what this report claims, and that it forces technology companies to share user information without ever revealing that they have done so.

The publication of those revelations is true transparency.

The government can release as many "transparent" press releases as it wants. It can allow technology companies -- many of which spy on Internet users for profit -- to disclose information they were previously forced to keep secret. And it can release reports like this one, which detail the many problems with the government's activities while simultaneously justifying them with the familiar anti-terrorism rhetoric. But unless those press releases, those "transparency" reports, and those review panels are as revealing as leaked government documents vetted by seasoned reporters and their sources, this will simply become the latest example of the government's lip service to transparency and secret devotion to silencing whistleblowers.

To paraphrase the famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell: transparency is publishing something you would prefer the world didn't know, everything else is public relations.

Illustration by Brad Jonas