Obama’s Justice Department gets grabby with media phone records

The Obama administration has brought more cases against current or former government employees suspected of leaking classified information than all previous presidents combined.
Eric Holder
It isn’t even close. The New York Times first reported that statistic more than a year ago, well before the end of the president’s first term.

Now we learn that the Justice Department has secretly grabbed two months worth of telephone records from more than 20 separate Associated Press phone lines. The idea, apparently, was to find out who leaked information to the to the AP about an unsuccessful terror plot concerning a bomb and an airliner to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The story, published by the AP on May 7, 2012, did not compromise national security because the news agency agreed to cooperate. The government asked AP to delay the story until it no longer would pose a risk. It did so, but the White House continued to unsuccessfully ask for a delay so that it could make an official announcement first. (Read an AP account of the story by clicking here.)

The AP has responded by demanding a return of the phone records and the destruction of any duplicates. It apparently didn’t know the records had been taken until it received a letter last Friday.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” said AP President and Chief Executive Office Gary Pruitt.” “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

The phone lines included a switchboard and a shared fax line.

Justice Department rules require any subpoena against the news media to be constructed as narrowly as possible to avoid infringing on press freedoms. But that didn’t seem to matter here.

In an unrelated story, it appears the much-reported IRS abuses against conservative tax-exempt organizations included requiring them to answer questions about any media contact they had. The web site hotair.com lists the following question among several asked of these groups (read the full list by clicking here):

mediaMore than a year ago, I quoted Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who urged reporters to be extra careful. Rather than trying to send tight-lipped reporters to jail in order to get them to reveal sources, today’s Justice Department will simply grab phone records, credit card statements or plane tickets.

As a reporter and a board member with the Society of Professional Journalists, I’ve seen all sides of this issue, from promising anonymity in exchange for important information to lobbying Congress against efforts to get tougher on leaks.

Good reporters always consider the possible motives a source might have for leaking information, as well as the consequences that might come from divulging the information. Some people may want to simply further their own careers, while others may want to harm the nation.

But I’ve also seen government officials wield “classified” stamps just to hide information that might be embarrassing, or even criminal.

Democracy benefits from this dance of information. As the AP demonstrated, and as I’ve heard from reporters at other Washington news outlets, the media often agrees to hold stories when the government presents credible reasons for doing so.

The Obama administration’s apparent strong-arm tactics against leaks is a gross over-reaction and a disturbing departure from previous administrations.

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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