USDA 'gag orders' are the same or similar to measures Obama administration took in 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama talks about cyber hacking during the U.S. presidential election as he holds his final news conference of the year at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Tuesday that an internal email sent to staff at its Agricultural Research Service unit this week calling for a suspension of “public-facing documents,” including news releases and photos, was flawed and that new guidance has been sent out to replace it.

The ARS focuses on scientific research into the main issues facing agriculture, including long-term climate change. President Donald Trump has cast doubt on whether man-made climate change is real and has railed against ex-President Barack Obama's efforts to combat it.

"This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued," USDA said in a statement. "ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff."

It said peer-reviewed scientific papers from the unit should not be blocked. "ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public."

The original email, sent Jan. 23, said: "Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content."

USDA officials said that after the email was sent, acting USDA Deputy Secretary Michael L. Young sent out a three-page memo to USDA agency department heads and other key agency officials outlining the interim procedures staff should follow.

A copy of the interim procedures memo, dated Jan. 23 and seen by Reuters, shows many of the steps reflect either the same or similar measures taken by the previous administration. Reuters also saw a memo, dated Jan. 22, 2009, that was sent to agency officials by former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The 2017 memo, however, differs in two main areas.

It centralizes the agency’s media inquiries and social media presence through the Office of the Secretary. As part of that, the memo asks USDA agencies to “review their websites, blog posts and other social media and, consistent with direction you will receive from the Office of Communication, remove references to policy priorities and initiatives of the previous Administration.”

It also rescinds the ability of USDA agencies to close an office or notify local delegations of office closures.

(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Leslie Adler)