Two weeks after the press partied hearty with President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the administration admitted that federal authorities had secretly combed through phone records for dozens of Associated Press journalists.
If ever there has been a reason to abolish this embarrassing display of fake camaraderie between journalists and the government officials they cover, this is it.
The Department of Justice didn’t stop at authorizing subpoenas for the journalists’ office phone records. As The New York Times reported, “the dragnet covered the work, home and cellphone records used by almost 100 people at one of the oldest and most reputable news organizations,” and it went on for months. Among the targeted phone lines: AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for reporters covering Congress.
AP President Gary Pruitt called it a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
The next day, more than 50 news organizations – including The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post – signed a letter to the Justice Department protesting the decision to secretly obtain AP’s phone records. It read, in part:
“In the 30 years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review.”
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Washington Post, “This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who ordered the subpoenas, tried to explain away spying on a major news organization as part of a “criminal investigation involving highly classified information.” The feds were investigating leaked details of a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled an al-Qaida plot last year to set off a bomb on an airplane headed to the United States.
Holder said he couldn’t comment on the subpoenas but went on and on about how he trusts his peeps.
“The people who are involved in this investigation, [whom I’ve known] for a great many years and whom I’ve worked with for a great many years, followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules,” Holder said. “Based on the people that I know – I don’t know about the facts, but based on the people I know – I think that that subpoena was done in conformance with DOJ regs.”
He added: “I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious leak, a very, very serious leak. ... It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk, and trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.”
In other words, just trust him.
Meanwhile, journalists around the country are asking, “What the heck is going on?”
It should be the question on every concerned citizen’s mind. It breaks my heart that we need this reminder: A thriving – and free – press is often the only check on representative government. Already, potential government whistle-blowers have lost their nerve and never will pick up that phone.
Last month, the president took a serious turn at the end of his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and paid tribute to journalists’ efforts during the recent tragedies in our country:
“We also saw journalists at their best – especially those who took the time to wade upstream through the torrent of digital rumors to chase down leads and verify facts and painstakingly put the pieces together to inform and to educate and to tell stories that demanded to be told.”
Another story demands to be told, and it ain’t going to be pretty.
Fellow journalists, the party’s over.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.