The Justice Department secretly examined phone records from the Associated Press to find the source of a news leak regarding a terror investigation. But that act of ill-advised plumbing has instead opened a gusher of criticism about the Obama administrations clumsy handling of a fundamental constitutional right, the freedom of the press.
We dont think the Obama administration wants to spy on the press or intimidate it. But we do think the president and his friend, Attorney General Eric Holder, are in this mess because of their priorities and their decisions. They have let their preoccupation with secrecy concerning terror cases trump a freedom that keeps America safe from all sorts of other troubles, including the abuse of power by the executive branch.
Obama has shown a disturbing zeal for rooting out leakers. He had no curiosity about secret abuses of rights during the administration of President George W. Bush, but he has condoned the aggressive prosecution of people who have brought secrets to light.
That comfort with playing the inquisitor set the stage for the reach into the APs phone records. The Justice Department claims it took this sensitive step carefully as it sought the source of a leak behind an AP story from May 7, 2012. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled an airliner bomb plot.
The governments actions were heavy-handed and have yet to be justified. It seized the phone records involving 20 phone lines used by more than 100 reporters in April and May 2012. AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt protested to the Justice Department in a letter Monday, calling the seizure a massive and unprecedented intrusion.
Beyond the constitutional issues, Pruitt wrote that the vast examination of records from the nations largest news-gathering organization put its business operations and its sources at risk.
All this is bad enough, but Holder is fast making it worse. Hes exceptionally vague about what aspect of the terror investigation justified such a move. Holder also disclosed that he had removed himself from the case because FBI agents had interviewed him about it. Nonetheless, he insisted that the leak was so serious that he thought finding the source required very aggressive action.
Pruitt disputes that. He said the AP held its story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Pruitt said the story refuted administration claims that there had been no al-Qaida-related plots surrounding the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. This detail links the case to Benghazi by bolstering conservative complaints that the administration has played down terrorist activity to promote its claims of success against al-Qaida.
The president needs to take two steps to start to recover from the damage done by the secret examination of AP phone records. The first would be to let Holder leave soon. He has been a lightning rod on several issues and seems most intent on holding his office instead of leading it. Keeping him helps no one, including Holder.
Second, Obama needs to end his campaign against leakers and commit instead to running a transparent administration. An obsession with secrecy, as that other president who got into plumbing discovered, can lead to very damaging public disclosures.