North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

May 23, 2013

Our Views: Seizure of Associated Press phone records is an insult to the press


North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — 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 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.

From Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., the parent company of The North Jefferson News. This commentary was written before additional reports revealed that two Fox News reporters were also targeted by the Justice Department for largely the same reasons as The Associated Press.