Newly revealed Justice Department records show the Obama administration’s hidden censorship tactics to silence writer Jim Bovard’s criticism of then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
A top Justice Department official sought to intimidate USA Today into no longer publishing Mr. Bovard’s commentary, according to documents unearthed by a Freedom of Information Act request made by Mr. Bovard.
Former Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon emailed USA Today editors in 2015 and browbeat them about why they allowed Mr. Bovard to criticize Mr. Holder.
“Mr. Bovard is not a columnist for the paper, and his take on Mr. Holder is well established by the screeds he publishes on other platforms as well such as The Washington Times, so why is it considered novel or appropriate for him to be given a platform to whack the AG every couple months on your paper’s website?” Mr. Fallon demanded.
USA Today editor Brian Gallagher replied that his publication had no agenda and welcomed Mr. Holder to follow through on previous agreements to meet with the paper’s writers.
Mr. Fallon was undeterred. He then wrote to Mr. Gallagher and David Mastio, another editor, saying he did not understand why Mr. Bovard was provided a platform “on repeated occasions for his Holder bashing.”
The newspaper continued to publish Mr. Bovard’s writing.
In a recent interview with The Times, Mr. Bovard said he did not know if such attempted intimidation had succeeded elsewhere. He also said government officials’ efforts to silence dissent were not limited to the Obama administration’s tenure nor any one political party.
“Unfortunately, this is business as usual in D.C. I mean, Holder was brazen about it in some cases but a lot of other attorneys general have been horrendous on this score as well,” Mr. Bovard said.
Mr. Fallon’s gripe with Mr. Bovard did not involve the leak of a government secret. Mr. Fallon’s email to USA Today pointed to one column in which Mr. Bovard called Mr. Holder “profoundly disappointing” and wrote that the attorney general “championed a Nixonian-style legal philosophy that presumed that any action the president orders is legal.”
Mr. Mastio, the USA Today editor, sparred with Mr. Fallon and he said it was the only time a government official at Mr. Fallon’s level sought to silence one of his writers’ opinions.
“It seemed like a big deal at the time and it just seemed really odd that a cabinet secretary’s PR guy would be so sensitive to, I think I referred to Bovard as an aging libertarian in the email I sent,” Mr. Mastio, who no longer works at the newspaper, said in an interview. “It was weird.”
Mr. Mastio said he did not recall if Mr. Holder ever met with his former publication’s editorial board, but he said the newspaper did later publish opinion articles by Mr. Holder.
The Obama administration’s hostility toward the press is well-documented. Obama officials conducted electronic surveillance of former Fox News correspondent James Rosen and former New York Times reporter James Risen, according to reports.
The government seized Mr. Rosen’s telephone records and emails, and his movements in and out of the State Department were tracked. Mr. Risen faced government demands that he reveal his sources — he declined — and he wrote last month that the Justice Department greenlighted an FBI plan to ambush a planned meeting between a source and him in 2014.
After Mr. Holder’s Justice Department subpoenaed Associated Press telephone records in 2013, a coalition of media outlets wrote to Mr. Holder questioning his actions.
The content from the AP, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Risen that prompted government encroaching upon press freedoms all involved news reporting.
The Justice Department targeted Mr. Bovard for his opinions, which would become a harbinger for future government action seeking to eliminate speech online.
The Biden administration developed a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security. The administration publicly paused the board’s work earlier this year and its intended leader, Nina Jankowicz, quit amid public outcry about the administration’s desire to be an arbiter of truth and regulator of speech.
Last year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the administration was “regularly making sure social media platforms are aware of the latest narratives dangerous to public health.”
Whether U.S. officials in Mr. Fallon’s shoes today would bother haranguing a publication or skip straight to the digital gatekeepers running large social media companies is anyone’s guess.
“I think some political appointees have more levers than they used to have a decade ago,” Mr. Bovard said.
Mr. Mastio, who has criticized his former employer’s operations, said the newspaper is more sensitive to criticism now than before and he did not know if the newspaper would shrug off the government’s gripes today.
Mr. Fallon, now executive director of liberal advocacy group Demand Justice, and Mr. Holder, now a lawyer at the firm Covington & Burling, did not respond to requests for comment.