Obama administration assaults press freedom

In Washington, as in any seat of power, most acts of folly begin with hubris. Government leaders, elected or appointed, usually don't intend to do the wrong thing, to overstep or cause harm, but they become so convinced, so certain of their purpose, that they are blinded by their pride.

Perhaps that's the root of the problem infecting the Justice Department, where officials secretly obtained months of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press. That Attorney General Eric Holder or anyone else there could find that action acceptable is frightening, to say the least. When the AP's president calls this episode a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into his news-gathering operation, that's no mere hyperbole.

This wasn't some straightforward, above-board effort, some court-based fight over a subpoena of records or notes made in full public view. That sort of thing happens all the time. This was a clandestine fishing operation covering cellphones, office and home phones of not only reporters and editors but of multiple bureaus and general switchboard numbers. The AP was never alerted about the records request in advance.

Why would the Justice Department engage in such a direct assault on the freedom of the press? Officials at the AP speculate that it's related to the news agency's reporting of a failed al-Qaida plot last year.

Granted, the Obama administration has a right and responsibility to investigate incidents where classified information is illegally obtained (and has taken heat in the past from GOP leaders in Congress over such leaks to the press). But this latest investigation seems to be part of a pattern of aggressively going after whistle-blowers — to a degree far beyond what previous administrations have sought to do and with little care about First Amendment protections.

Add this to the recent revelation of officials at the Internal Revenue Service targeting tea party-affiliated groups with added scrutiny in reviewing requests for nonprofit status, and there's a troubling pattern — a lack of interest in basic constitutional rights. The White House has denied knowledge of either incident, but that does not absolve it of responsibility.

The phone records case is more than some dust-up between Mr. Holder and a group of professional journalists. (Although formerly a member of the Associated Press, The Sun no longer has direct ties to it.) Rather, this is about the rights of all Americans.

If an administration can seek such a large amount of records revealing such critically important details about how news organizations gather material, what's to stop this or any other White House from taking a similar tack in response to criticism in the press? They need only find an excuse, a leaked document, perhaps, and then get the phone number of every person that organization has contacted from weeks or even months at a time.

That would not just have a "chilling" effect on news gathering, it would have a subzero effect. Could Watergate have been reported if the Nixon White House had its hands on every telephone call that came in or out of The Washington Post? What about The New York Times and the Pentagon Papers that revealed so many lies about the Vietnam War?

If the Obama administration wants to look over the shoulders of its employees at the Central Intelligence Agency or elsewhere in government service, that's its right. Prosecutors must be free to do their jobs. But to spy on journalists or any other American without cause should not be regarded as acceptable.

This isn't that difficult a line to draw. The burden should always be on the government to prove its need for information that isn't available through any other means. Until that happens, the Justice Department should, as the AP has requested, return or destroy all copies of those phone records. Enough damage has been done by the administration's actions already.

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