Officials at the Justice Department have stressed the care they took in secretly seizing the phone records of editors and reporters at the Associated Press. They have talked about the limited scope of their search and how they did not seek the content of any calls. Yet for all the reassuring words about valuing freedom of the press, the department’s actions serve to cast a broad chilling effect, signaling no less to news organizations that officials will go after you.
Ordinarily, in such instances, authorities would notify a newspaper or other media outlet that they are seeking to pursue records. That allows the news organization time to challenge the request in court, to quash a subpoena. In this case, Justice officials took the rare step of bypassing notification, arguing that to do so would jeopardize the integrity of their investigation.
Eric Holder, the attorney general, has argued that the AP story about the foiling of a terrorist plot by the al-Qaida branch in Yemen “put the American people at risk” and that determining who was responsible for leaking the information to reporters “required very aggressive action.” Unfortunately, Holder has offered little substance to back up the need for such extraordinary and sweeping action, seizing the phone records of 20 reporters and editors.
What the Associated Press reminds is that the news service withheld the story for a time at the request of government officials. Gary Pruitt, the AP president and chief executive, added that the story ran after officials “assured us the national security concerns had passed.”
The pursuit of leakers has been a staple of administrations. Lately, it has been part of the partisan tug-of-war between the Obama White House and Republicans in Congress. Republicans have jabbed the president and his team for leaking classified material to portray their deeds in a favorable light. So the outrage now expressed by Republicans about the White House cracking down has its cheeky element.
What should be emphasized is that the Obama White House has been much more aggressive than its predecessors in pursuing leakers. It has launched prosecutions in a half-dozen cases, including John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst now in prison for sharing classified information about a fellow CIA officer with a reporter. The information never was published.
On Wednesday, the White House put its support behind a proposed legislative shield for reporters to protect confidential sources. That step hardly eases the concern about the overreaching against Associated Press. No question, al-Qaida and other terrorist networks must be pursued. Classified documents must be protected. Still, this fight from the outset has required striking the right balance, seeking to prevent attacks without jeopardizing core principles. Every day, prosecutors must exercise discretion. In this instance, they went too far, putting at risk the flow of information that keeps the country strong.