DOJ’s Dragnet on Leakers: The Apathy is Troubling, Especially Among Journalists

The revelation that the Department of Justice targeted Associated Press reporters highlights features of contemporary American life

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Attorney General Eric Holder attends a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2013.

The revelation that the Department of Justice has obtained the private phone records of dozens of Associated Press reporters highlights four features of contemporary life in America.

First, the Obama administration, broadly speaking, (the White House is denying that President Obama himself knew anything about the DOJ dragnet) seems to be developing something of an obsession with pursuing leakers of confidential government information. Note that, unlike some prominent prior investigations, the AP matter doesn’t even involve government whistleblowers, but merely information about a successful operation to stop a terrorist attack — information that the AP, at the government’s request, did not publish immediately.

(MORE: Joe Klein: Crossing a Line in the A.P. Leaks Probe)

Although at this point claims that the administration’s behavior has been “Nixonian” remain absurd (for one thing, unlike Nixon’s DOJ, Obama’s Justice Department seems concerned about actually staying within the letter of the law), the White House’s policy of dedicating so many resources to uncovering even seemingly innocuous leakers is worrisome.

Second, it’s not even theoretically possible to surpass the degree of Republican hypocrisy on this issue. Recall that many of those howling about the Obama administration’s (probably legal) investigation are the very same people who did nothing but cheer when the Bush administration, in the name of “national security,” pursued a program of warrantless wiretapping that trampled on federal law.

First prize for sheer chutzpah regarding this matter goes to House committee chair Darrell Issa, who immediately issued a press release condemning the DOJ investigation, and calling for a congressional investigation, even though in 2007 Issa was one of just a handful of House members who voted against a bill that would have made investigations of this type illegal (the bill was successfully killed in the Senate by Issa’s  GOP colleagues). Although we won’t know for certain until more facts are revealed, it’s quite likely that the DOJ is correct when it asserts that rummaging through two months of office, home, and cellphone records of reporters on a fishing expedition for information regarding the confidential source of a story is something that the law as currently written allows the government to do.

(MORE: Homeland Insecurity: After Boston, the Struggle Between Liberty and Security)

Over the course of the last dozen years (that is, ever since the commencement of the latest in our never-ending series of wars) Congress and the courts have given the executive branch nearly unlimited power to protect Americans from the dangers of a truly free press, and in particular the “danger” of the media having access to un-intimidated confidential sources inside the government, who can reveal what our leaders are up to without fear of having their identities revealed to those leaders.

Finally, the reaction of some journalists to this story has been deeply depressing.  For example, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer attempted a bit of fair and balanced musing:

[I]f there was a serious leak about an al-Qaeda operation or whatever, they’re trying to find out who may be leaking this information to the news media, do they occasionally have the right to secretly monitor our phone calls?

If a member of the U.S. press is asking this question, we should all be worried. As journalist Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian asks:

Can you imagine what it’s like to be an Obama official and—in the wake of these revelations—sit back and watch one of the nation’s most celebrated journalists instantly suggest that the perhaps the US government should be monitoring his phone calls with his sources?