Anderson Cooper: 'We are not the enemy here'

Journalists who come too close to oil spill clean-up efforts without permission could find themselves facing a $40,000 fine and even one to five years in prison under a new rule instituted by the Coast Guard late last week.

It's a move that outraged observers have decried as an attack on First Amendment rights. And CNN's Anderson Cooper describes the new rules as making it "very easy to hide incompetence or failure."

The Coast Guard order states that "vessels must not come within 20 meters [65 feet] of booming operations, boom, or oil spill response operations under penalty of law."

But since "oil spill response operations" apparently covers much of the clean-up effort on the beaches, CNN's Anderson Cooper describes the rule as banning reporters from "anywhere we need to be."

A "willful" violation of the new rule could result in Class D felony charges, which carry a penalty of one to five years in prison under federal law.

The new rule appears to contradict the promises made by Adm. Thad Allen, the official leading the Coast Guard's response to the oil spill.

"Media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations, except for two things, if it's a security or safety problem," Allen told ABC News in June.

In defending the new rule, Allen told reporters that he got "complaints from local officials" about the safety of people near cleanup efforts.

"We're not the enemy here," Cooper responded in a report broadcast Thursday night. "Those of us down here trying to accurately show what is happening -- we are not the enemy. I've not heard about any journalist who's disrupted relief efforts; no journalist wants to be seen as having slowed down the cleanup or made things worse. If a Coast Guard official asked me to move, I'd move. But to create a blanket rule that everyone has to stay 65 feet away from boom and boats, that doesn't sound like transparency."

The rule has come under severe criticism not only from journalists but from observers and activists involved in the Gulf Coast clean-up.

"With this, the Gulf Coast cleanup operation has now entered a weird Orwellian reality where the news is shaped, censored and controlled by the government in order to prevent the public from learning the truth about what's really happening," writes Mike Adams at NaturalNews.

"We might expect something like this from Chavez, or Castro or even the communist leaders of China, but here in the United States, we've all been promised we lived in 'the land of the free,'" Adams continues. "Obama apparently does not subscribe to that philosophy anymore (if he ever did)."

Under the rule, reporters or anyone else wishing to get within 65 feet of a cleanup operation need to get permission from the Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New Orleans.

"The fact is we're not attempting to keep anyone from seeing anything," Edward Stanton, the current Coast Guard Captain in New Orleans, told WKRG News in Mobile.

"Nine times out of 10, probably 10 times out of 10” access will be granted, Stanton said.

He said the rule was put into place because of complaints about "boaters interfering with the oil spill operations."

Yet the rule seems on its face to be just the latest attempt to reduce media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which has now attained the status of worst accidental oil spill in history.

Reporters have been complaining for weeks about BP, the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard working to keep reporters away from wrenching images of oil-covered birds and oil-soaked beaches. On Friday, a photographer from ProPublica was detained by police and BP officials after taking photos of a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas.

Cooper compared the latest effort to prevent access to the oil spill to similar efforts during Hurricane Katrina.

"Frankly it's a lot like in Katrina, where they tried to make it impossible to see recovery efforts of people who died in their homes. If we can't show what is happening, warts and all ... that makes it very easy to hide failure, and hide incompetence."

The following video was broadcast on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, July 1, 2010, and uploaded to YouTube by user djohnsto77.