Despite what you may hear from some of his more fevered critics, President Barack Obama's recent scandal-quakes don't appear to fall anywhere near the level of Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal. But by another Nixonian yardstick, trying to muzzle on press freedoms, Team Obama appears to have surged into the lead.
I'm talking about the Obama Justice Department's pursuit of leakers, the mission that, you may recall, gave Nixon's infamous team of Watergate "plumbers" their nickname.
Now plugging up leaks has returned as the alleged mission of Obama's Justice Department's secret snooping into phone records of journalists at Fox News and The Associated Press.
The Washington Post reported Monday that federal investigators secretly obtained Fox News' chief Washington correspondent James Rosen's personal emails and phone records and tracked his visits to the State Department. The probe followed a Rosen story about a CIA analysis of North Korea's possible response to sanctions. The leak was traced to State Department worker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a North Korea specialist who was indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act, a law that was intended to punish those who give aid to our enemies.
A week earlier, The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department secretly obtained more than two months of phone records of more than 20 AP telephone lines and the home and cellphones of individual journalists, earlier this year.
So much for the promise on Obama's "transition" website to strengthen "whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers." Since then, his administration has been more likely than any of its predecessors to try to silence and prosecute federal workers.
The Espionage Act had been used only three times to bring cases against government officials accused of leaking classified information to the media before Obama took office. It has since been used six times. So far.
No one should be surprised, says attorney James Goodale, since Obama has relentlessly pursued leakers ever since he became president.
"He is fast becoming," Goodale writes on the Daily Beast website, "the worst national security press president ever, and it may not get any better."
Worse than Nixon? Goodale knows better than most. He was general counsel for The New York Times in its 1971 Pentagon Papers case in which the Nixon administration prosecuted the Times under the Espionage Act. The U.S. Supreme Court fortunately sided with the Times.
Forty-two years later, Goodale has written a book, "Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles," just in time for a new wave of leak-plugging questions in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Full disclosure: Goodale and I are on the board of directors of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which has written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, joining other press freedom organizations, voicing our objections to "unnecessary government intrusion" in the work of journalists.
Future efforts to obtain phone records or other information essential to news-gathering, according to the letter, "should be communicated to the news organization in advance so that the action can be challenged in court as justice demands."
That's been standard practice in recent years. But something has changed in this administration.
Goodale suspects the grim picture of world terrorism that Obama received in security briefings may have spurred the president to overreact.
Besides, it's not going to hurt Obama politically. The AP seizures, for example, came after outraged Republican lawmakers demanded action to find the leakers of a foiled plot by an al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen.
Hating leaks and the media are a bipartisan pastime for politicians, especially presidents. Even Obama's usual Republican critics were somewhat muted about the AP probe. Republicans suspected the leak may have come from somewhere close to the Oval Office, since it revealed a counterterrorism success that the Obama administration was not at all unhappy to let the public know about.
That's typical. But sometimes we need to know what the government is not happy to let us know.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.
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