The Obama Administration has found itself in yet another scandal this week after it was revealed that law enforcement officials had obtained records for the telephone lines of journalists at the Associated Press. From the NYTimes:
The A.P. said that the Justice Department informed it on Friday that law enforcement officials had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones. It said the records were seized without notice sometime this year.
The organization was not told the reason for the seizure. But the timing and the specific journalistic targets strongly suggested they are related to a continuing government investigation into the leaking of information a year ago about the Central Intelligence Agency’s disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.
Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of The A.P was not amused and wrote to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr calling the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its operations and told him that “there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters.” He continued: “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
A Justice Department spokesman said that the agency was “always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws.” The JD’s reference to the ‘public interest’ referred to the complicated CIA operation in Yemen that was attempting to thwart a plot by Al-Qaeda to attack a US bound airliner. From the Huff Post:
On May 7, 2012, AP reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, citing anonymous sources, reported that the CIA had thwarted a plot by an al-Qaeda affiliate to “destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.”
The AP acknowledged then that it had agreed with the White House and CIA requests “not to publish” its story “immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.” But “once officials said those concerns were allayed,” the news organization went ahead with its story rather than wait for the Obama administration’s official announcement.
It was later revealed that the “would-be bomber” was actually a U.S. spy planted in the Yemen-based group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. On May 18, U.S. and allied officials suggested to Reuters that the leak to the AP had forced the end of an “operation which they hoped could have continued for weeks or longer.”
Regardless of public safety threats, media freedom advocates are maintaining that the ability of the press to maintain confidential relationships with their sources should be protected at all costs. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released the following statement:
“The media’s purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance. The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again…..
Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power. Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources.”
And the Newspaper Association of America issued a statement saying:
“Today we learned of the Justice Department’s unprecedented wholesale seizure of confidential telephone records from the Associated Press. These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
The Obama Administration’s record on civil liberties is becoming increasingly worrying - the NDAA, the Material Strikes Law and drone strike policy all point to a general disregard for basic constitutional rights, and make it difficult to argue that Obama is any better than the Bush Administration in this regard. Government attacks on press freedom is nothing new – the Bush Administration launched broad initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources, but this is no excuse.
Obama was elected in part to put a stop to the egregious abuses of executive power by the Bush Administration. Instead, it appears to be upping the ante.