Obama puts ‘gag order’ on federal employees

January 28, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility today released U.S. Forest Service documents that indicate the Obama administration has put some federal employees under a gag order not to talk to news reporters. The group says 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.”

PEER cited a number of other recent examples:

— 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.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said:

How can a government be transparent when public servants are forbidden from disclosing facts?  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.

11 Responses to “Obama puts ‘gag order’ on federal employees”

  1. jawvmm says:

    Ken, I think the headline is misleading. First, PEER does not cite any evidence that the “gag order” is new or comes from the Presidential level, and in fact ends with an “if” in regards to that claim. The email itself does not say that, and states that it is a “reminder.”

    Second, the email is not a “Forest Service order” as PEER characterizes it – it is an email from a PR officer, not a supervisor, in a single national forest office, to employees in that forest.

    Third, it is not uncommon in my experience in a variety of state and local government organizations for staff to be required to refer media to press or public relations officers. I believe that it is common practice in the private sector, also. And it is not uncommon for this to be in writing, contrary to what PEER says. The purpose is not always, or even mostly, to control “spin”, but generally to make sure that the information provided is accurate. This is probably justified. In my experience, most employees do not have accurate data most of the time.

    Finally, reminding employees not to discuss national policy issues with reporters is not the same as the administration not allowing management to grant interviews, which is one of the examples PEER compares this to. It is also not the same as directing employees to conceal facts, which PEER also implies this email is doing.

  2. rj says:

    The memo is from the Pubic Legislative Affairs Officer so what’s the big deal. Everyone has a PR/media/communications person and that is who the media contact not employees. This is SOP in all levels of government (local, state & federal). It’s also the rule for any private company for which I have worked.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    I can see how you got that about the headline. But I don’t think the headline suggests it is a new policy — and in fact the story itself says this policy resembles what was done under Bush. In that regard, perhaps it is a “reminder.” But I think you’re pointing out a distinction without a difference.

    In my experience, which goes back about 20 years covering federal agencies through Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama, during Bush I and Clinton it was pretty easy to get real information from real government employees.

    What began to happen under Bush II and has continued under Obama is that — for the most part — government runs its PR operation like it’s running a political campaign. They have a message and they won’t answer questions except to spit out their sound bite of the day.

    It’s almost impossible now to talk to, for example, the district manager of MSHA or a local EPA person, without providing questions in writing ahead of time or going through lots of hopes. The end result is that, most of the time, what reporters get is not an interview, but two minutes before deadline they get a one-paragraph statement that doesn’t answer your question and only in the most general terms says something about the general topic you’re reporting on.

    It’s a ridiculous way for government to run, and it certainly gets in the way of me and most other reporters I know doing their jobs of giving information to the public.


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  6. Anon. says:

    I agree with Ken – that they even taking such overt pains to prevent any information transfer means they are very scared or very paranoid about the public learning about agency actions. And why does this woman single out stimulus and gas? Hmmm, the MNF, to please the Bushies desire to expand contractors and more of a desire to please their FS bosses spent 2008 getting rid of their road crew and equipment like graders. Despite 100’s of miles of road they “decided” these worker bees were not needed. Two years later with roads gone to hell, numerous complaints to Congressional, they are using Stimulus to create a “needed” internal road capacity. But two years ago… Expediency and unquestioned homage to agency politicos dictate MNF’s actions, not the resource, not the law, not common or fiscal sense.

  7. tina says:

    Ken… jawvmm is right – but what’s hilarious is that what’s making the rounds today is “don’t put anything about this in writing”. Yes – it’s a long standing policy to work through our press folks. But FOIA the Aug 25 Chief’s letter for real fun.

  8. Anon. says:

    You mean the letter from ex-Chief Abifailed Kimbell whom couldn’t understand why FS ranked like 305 of 315 Federal Agencies in employee morale. As I recall, she said it was all the fault of the employees and no fault of leadership. Unless morale improves, beatings will continue.

    Part of FS’s problem is lack of consistency which is why employees are not empowered to speak to the facts or realities on the ground. This action is ok one day, but depending on the user group or target it might not be the next. They are smart enough to know that they cannot reveal to the public the truth.

  9. tina says:

    you’ve got the numbers wrong, and it’s the aug 25 letter saying punish employees who dont go through press office and yess I’m off duty todya

  10. Anon. says:

    What ? They were worse? I don’t recall exactly. My impression is that most FS leadership is loathe to email or write anything, so how we get to what we do beyond the vague broadities of the plan is a mystery to the rank and file.

  11. Carlson Pharmah says:

    What has happened to freedom of speech? In both the private sector and public sector “pubic information officers” only provide information based on spin. To believe otherwise is to put your head in the sand and hope the tornado passes you by. Why is it so easy to purchase our freedom of speech by salary or a job. I know we all need one. Isn’t there something better than living with fear that what you say or don’t say can end by your losing your job and support to your family? This does not sound to me like the America I was raised to believe in. Everyone nods their heads and says, oh, yes politics. Why do we personnally limit our own abilities to discuss our work and have not spin but actual events revealed. Maybe because we would not like what we might actually read, see, or have to acknowledge happening under our noses?

    The example of case of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers who was removed for honestly answering questions posed by the Washington Post is significant. Why can’t questions be answered honestly? What about all of our “words of the month” to live by in our schools and cities that we teach our children? Integrity, community, honesty, self-discipline to name a few.

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