Distrust of government secrecy has been elevated to an exceptional level with the disclosure the Justice Department covertly examined two months of Associated Press phone records to determine who leaked details to the AP about a foiled terrorist plot.
This amounts to spying on an American news organization -- common practice in dictatorships but scary conduct in a democratic system that prizes the public value of an independent watchdog press.
What makes this case so egregious is the Justice Department went about securing an array of phone records from at least 20 AP phone lines, including reporters and editors personal cellphones, without allowing the news agency an opportunity to object.
Furthermore, it violates the department’s 30-year-old subpoena guidelines requiring it to make “every reasonable effort to obtain through alternative means” information that might be included in the media’s phone records.
The Justice Department’s explanation that it complied with national security laws, and limited its review of last year’s April and May records to the phone numbers of the callers and not the content of the calls, is thin cover for this affront to the free press clause of the First Amendment.
The motive for wanting to know who talked to the AP is clear but it is also irresponsible. Justice Department sleuths were hell-bent on hunting down the confidential sources for the May 7, 2012, AP story about a CIA operation to stop an airliner bomb plot in Yemen.
Why this obsession with nailing the leakers? The story was an embarrassment to the president, who had assured the American people there was no credible terrorist threat last May, around the time of the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The AP held the story for several days when told by the White House it would interfere with intelligence gathering. But after assurances any national security risk had passed, the news agency published the story. The Justice Department hound dogs were close behind.
You may be tempted to dismiss as gratuitous wailing the news media’s concern over this serious breach of the constitutional wall between government and the press. But the chilling consequences of the Justice Department’s overzealous intrusiveness could well impact your ability to know what your government is doing or not doing on your behalf.
Whistleblowers and confidential sources critical to keeping the government honest and transparent are sure to be discouraged from sharing what the public has a right to know if the government can cavalierly snoop into the work product of the press.