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Seizing AP phone files a major abuse of power

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By Bob Gaydos

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When Barack Obama was running for president, he promised an administration that would be the most transparent of all time, one that would make sure the public was aware of how its government was operating -- who was doing what and why.

It appears the president meant that openness to apply to those branches of government not under his direct or indirect control. Before the news broke this week that the Justice Department had used a secret subpoena to seize the phone records of up to 100 reporters and editors for the Associated Press earlier this year, the Obama administration had already set a record for indictments of present or former government officials accused of being either whistle-blowers or information leakers, depending on one's point of view. In fact, the six such indictments are twice as many as all previous administrations combined. That suggests more than a passing interest in keeping things less than transparent.
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The new case, under investigation by the U.S. Attorneys Office in the District of Columbia, involves a news story disclosing the CIA's foiling of  an Al-Qaeda plot in Yemen to blow up an airliner with an improved version of the so-called "underwear bomb." Apparently, the CIA had an agent or agents embedded in the Al-Qaeda group. The AP did not immediately report the story as events were unfolding, at the request of the administration, which cited national security concerns. But the news agency released the story after hearing the White House planned to discuss the case publicly. That would seem to override any arguments of national security.

In fact, the national security argument seems to be questionable in the six pending cases as well, all of which were widely reported in press accounts and/or in books. While officials' obsession with secrecy has occasionally shaken public confidence in the government, the republic has not yet crumbled from the efforts of a free press.

And that is the overriding issue here -- not the CIA's, FBI's, or any other secrecy-obsessed agency's ability to do its job, but the constitutionally protected right of a free and unfettered press to do its job of informing the citizens. Make no mistake, when a powerful government agency, without notice or opportunity to challenge in court, seizes a wide swath of journalists' files or, in this case, phone records, it can have a chilling effect on the press and the public.
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The files seized came from AP phone lines in various bureaus, including Washington, D.C. and New York as well as in the Capitol. As the AP pointed out in response to the seizures, the records provided a list of everyone the reporters or editors had talked to over a two-month period. If there is any more effective way of convincing people not to talk to reporters than removing the assurance of confidentiality, I don't know it. A free press cannot operate as intended if the subjects of its stories can gain access to the possible source of the information reported.

In this case, the Justice Department apparently did not even have to justify the records seizures, and they came only after the department, by its own admission, had interviewed several hundred people and reviewed thousands of other files. In other words, it had nothing to go on, so it decided to go on a fishing expedition at AP offices.

The president is claiming no knowledge of the Justice Department's actions in this case, which could well be true. It is also irrelevant. What matters is that high-level officials in the nation's top law-enforcement agency felt justified in going after reporters' records with no attempt at due process -- no need to prove that the convenient "national security" argument had merit. The more citizens of a country surrender their rights to protection from unreasonable searches, seizures, wire-tappings, detentions, or door-bustings, the less secure they make themselves.

There is no telling how people in power will use that power in the future. That's why laws should protect the most vulnerable, not the most powerful. Those in power have tremendous resources at their disposal to do what is necessary to protect the citizenry without abusing their power at the expense of the citizenry.

In this case, Obama has asked U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York to reintroduce a media shield bill that went nowhere four years ago. It would further protect journalists who refuse to disclose confidential sources and would enable news agencies to ask a federal judge to deny requests for access to phone records.

That would at least give the press a fighting chance against heavy-handed "investigation" by government agencies. But a president who promised an open government and has instead authorized increased secret snooping on United States citizens has an obligation to do much more. Far too much behavior in the Obama administration has been justified as necessary for national security. A free and unfettered citizenry and press are the best evidence of a secure nation. 
 

 

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Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)
 

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