This week, we learned that the Obama Justice Department seized two months of records of at least 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters. These include phone lines in the AP's New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn offices as well as the main AP number in the House of Representatives press gallery, the private phones and cell phones belonging to AP reporters and a fax line in one AP office.
The government effected this massive seizure "sometime this year" according to a letter from the Justice Department to AP's chief counsel this past Friday (May 10). The letter cites relevant "permission" clauses in its "investigative guidelines" and makes clear that it considers the action legal and necessary.
In many ways, this is the most blatant act of media information seizure in memory. It affects over 100 AP journalists and the countless people those journalists communicated with by phone during those two months. It violates accepted constitutional guarantees, the concept of freedom of the press and the privacy rights of literally thousands of people. Predictably and justifiably, press, politicians and activists have expressed outrage.
by US Embassy New Zealand
So they were probably not surprised that, led by the U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, federal investigators spent a year aggressively searching for the people who leaked the information. That's vintage Obama. With six government "whistle-blowers" in jail or being prosecuted, federal law-enforcers have prosecuted twice as many whistle-blowers as
all previous Administrations combined over the course of two and a quarter centuries. But until now, the media-savvy Obama people have been careful to restrain their pursuit of the corporate press, limiting confrontations to an occasional request or demand for one source revelation.
That's why these revelations are so shocking to media professionals and advocates. As AP's CEO Gary Pruit told Attorney General Eric Holder in his letter of complaint this week, "These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-months period, provide a road map to AP's news gathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."
There, in a nutshell, is the problem. For the corporate media, there is such still a thing as "no conceivable right to know". Up to now, part of Obama's information policy has been that mainstream media qualifies for First Amendment protection but "alternative" journalists and the news organizations they work for, as well as bloggers, activists, writers and others who work independently of major news organizations and who use the Internet as the free vehicle of communications it was invented to be have absolutely no protections. Since 2009, this government is known to have taken action against Internet activists and truth-tellers: seizing servers, email records and virtually all forms of on-line communications and then prosecuting people in over a dozen cases based on some of those seizures. There's been very little action taken against the corporate press, which for its part has largely ignored or blacked out any reporting on the government attacks on its smaller media competitors.
This "favored status" commercial media has enjoyed has now been trashed. The "protected press" is as exposed as the rest of us. In answering Pruit's letter, the Justice Department said as much. "We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," U.S. Attorney's Machen spokesman William Miller explained, in a remark that went way beyond the traditional exemption for protecting lives. He added, "...we are 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."
In fact, there was no urgency involved in the government's assault on AP's news operation -- the incident in question was over -- and seizure of this kind of information has traditionally been allowed only if a subpeona is issued, after the targeted media parties have had a chance to challenge the government intrusion in court. The courts, after all, constitute one of the protections of privacy and free speech we citizens have. Under our Constitution, the courts, not the government, are supposed to decide what is "the right balance," as Miller put it.
That I have learned personally and this is either a disclaimer or a claim to authenticity. Last year, the FBI snatched a server belonging to May First/People Link (my organization) from its location. We believe they were investigating some nut using anonymous servers (servers that don't maintain records of who used them) to mail threatening emails to students at the University of Pittsburgh. We maintain one such server for our colleagues at Rise-Up.
The AP case applies the suspension of our rights to the "established" media, finalizing a remarkably swift collapse of balance of power protections by removing the courts from the equation.
It's a moment described in the famous Civil Rights Movement saying, quoted by Angela Davis: "If they come for me in the morning, they'll come for you at night." After years of chipping away (largely without protest or even acknowledgement from the mainstream corporate media), at the rights of what the Administration considers the most dangerous and uncontrollable information source -- the Internet and the activists and independent journalists who thrive on it like Wikileaks or Mayfirst, the web hosting service I helped found -- they've now knocked on the door of the mainstream media.