The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Obama Gag Order on Federal Workers Like Those Under Bush

Forest Service Staff Forbidden from Talking to National Media or on National Issues


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

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."

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.

Read the full Forest Service order on speaking with reporters

Compare Obama order to a Bush-era gag order

Look at controversies about gas drilling on the Monongahela National Forest

Examine EPA censorship of YouTube video

See the congressional testimony of Chief Chambers

View Obama signing statement controlling information to Congress

Revisit overdue White House plan for scientific integrity

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.