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Tom Zirpoli: Once targeted, press finally wakes up

Stop the presses. The government is looking at reporters' phone records.

The Associated Press and everyone else in the media are upset because the Justice Department, under pressure from Congress to identify a leaker about an undercover terrorist investigation, obtained about two months of phone records for some reporters in the spring of 2012.

Forgive me for my lack of outrage. My responses to the Associated Press: First, welcome to the club. Second, your outrage is a little late by about 12 years.

On October 26, 2001, in response to 9/11, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. The acronym stands for Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism. Among other powers, the act greatly expands our government's ability to monitor our phone records. And just last year, Congress extended the provisions of the act for four more years.

As stated by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, "Until now, the press has showed only sporadic interest in this. It's just too bad that it took monitoring of journalists to get journalists fired up about this."

Indeed, their outrage seems a little self-serving.

In 2007 I wrote a column complaining about President George W. Bush's program to eavesdrop on American phone conversations without first checking with a special court set up by law to make sure our government does not abuse this power. "Without these tools," said Bush, "it will be harder to figure out what our enemies are doing to train, recruit and infiltrate operatives into America."

President Barack Obama, it appears, has been more than happy to continue using the extraordinary powers outlined in the Patriot Act.

Last week, AP president Gary Pruitt wrote that "there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters." Where has Pruitt been since 2001? Does he really believe that journalists have more constitutional rights than average Americans when it comes to phone records?

The government has been looking at our phone records and, in many cases, eavesdropping on our phone conversations, since 9/11. Why is this only a constitutional crisis when reporters' phone records are monitored?

The current crisis started after the U.S. secured a double agent spy within an al-Qaida group based in Yemen. This information was leaked to American reporters. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress demanded that the Justice Department investigate and identify the government leaker.

According to Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, "Leaking classified information is a crime, and there are usually only two parties who know who committed the crime, the leaker and the reporter. Getting access to phone records allows investigators to see who the possible source might have been and confront them with evidence of a crime."

On the other hand, Laura Murphy from the American Civil Liberties Union stated that, "The media's purpose is to keep the public informed, and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance. The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department's actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again."

Actually, I would like the press to do their job and report on all Americans who have had their constitutional rights violated since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are "very troubled by these allegations," according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. Did these folks not read the Patriot Act they voted to approve in 2001 and reapproved in 2012?

Perhaps all of this outrage will serve as a reminder to Americans that allowing fear to rule our public policy is always an invitation for government overreach and abuse.

We need to return to pre-9/11 rule of law when access to phone records and eavesdropping were approved and monitored by a court of law.

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