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Obama’s Justice Dept. violates the public trust (updated)

The Obama Administration has stumbled badly with its Justice Department’s overzealous and heavy-handed seizure of telephone records of Associated Press (AP) reporters and editors. The president should step in to personally apologize for his attorney general’s mistake— and send a clear message that such a brazen, broad incursion into the private records of a news organization and its employees will never happen again. If necessary, the president should fire Mr. Holder.

According to the AP, the Justice Department secretly accessed the phone records of 20 phone lines, including personal phones belonging to employees, in an effort to identify a source or sources who may have fed reporters information that led to a 2012 story about a bomb plot targeting Americans in Yemen. The bomb plot was foiled and the AP— in consultation with the Obama administration— held off on reporting details of the conspiracy until the government itself was preparing to make it public anyway. Still, Attorney General Eric Holder has characterized the “leak” of classified information as a serious problem that “required very aggressive action.”

But the actions of Holder’s lieutenants were way too aggressive. In a break with a longstanding custom, the Justice Department did not limit the scope of their review to a single reporter or editor, but sifted through thousands of phone numbers over a two-month period, according to the New York Times. The government took this action without notifying the AP or its reporters until after the fact.

This violation of privacy represents a serious incursion into the personal rights of individual reporters and on the freedom of the press as guaranteed under the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It sends a chilling message to people who work at any level of government— or in any other sector— that speaking to the news media could result in your name and number being scrutinized by the feds. And it is the latest in a troubling trend of Obama-led probes into leaks— all of which seem focused on limiting the public’s access to important information about the actions of their government.

Mr. Holder— and the president —owe the AP and the nation more than an explanation. They must condemn this troubling breach. Astonishingly, they must now re-affirm their own commitment to one of the most fundamental of American principles: the freedom of the press.

Postscript (May 16): Reports on Wed., May 15 indicate that the White House is encouraging Congressional leaders to renew their efforts to pass a media shield law that would seek to protect reporters and news organizations (and by extension their sources) from certain inquiries. However, the specific legislation (which failed to advance in the last session after it was watered-down by restrictions insisted upon by the White House) would probably not have prevented the Justice Dept. from executing its recent sweep of AP records. Therefore, this "peace offering" — as the New York Times tentatively termed it in its editorial today— falls well short of the measures needed to restore public trust in the executive branch's posture towards press freedoms. - BF

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