Who ya gonna call?


Monday afternoon my stomach hurt, and not from anything I ate. I was reading, with fascination and outrage, various accounts of how the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors over a two-month period. It was a blanket subpoena that included cell, office and home phones of AP journalists.

Home phones. Of working journalists.

AP President Gary Pruitt called it a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities. I was thinking of other things to call it. Orwellian. Police state. Nixonian. McCarthy-like.

So yeah, I’m trying to find a place to land that’s somewhere between indifference and hyperbolic hysteria.

But this violation of the newsgathering process is horrific and serious, and not just for journalists. It demonstrates the so-called “chilling effect” of government attacks on the press and its operations. That kind of intimidation can hamper journalists’ ability to aggressively report about government doings. And if we’re not writing about that stuff, who do you expect to do it? Bloggers?

So far the Justice Department hasn’t specified what it’s looking for. By throwing out a huge virtual trawl net to capture every communication during a broad time period, Justice can clearly be said to be on a “fishing expedition” for information.

So what, you may say. Here’s what Pruitt had to say:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt said in a letter to U.S. 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.”

Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said “The Justice Department’s secret acquisition of two months of the business and personal phone records of AP’s reporters and other employees is shameful and outrageous. Attorney General Holder and President Obama have once again shown by their actions that their words about transparency and government openness are hollow.”

“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen,” Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post. “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”

It is indeed a broad sweep. And it raises the question: What are the limits of such authority? Who could be targeted? If the AP – a large and relatively powerful organization – can be so cavalierly ransacked, what about the rest of us?

That’s not an overreaction. Several times in my career I’ve had to fight off subpoenas for notes, sources and other materials from local law enforcement agencies that should have been doing their own investigations instead on relying on ours. The press is not the agent of the government in the justice system.

The apparent motive behind the subpoenas was to discover who provided information to the AP for a story about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. In other words, they are looking for the leak – an obsession with the Obama administration that has resulted in the indictment of six “whistle-blowers,” more than all other previous administrations combined. Spooking the whistle-blowers keeps government missteps out of the press.

That’s the scary part. If reporters and their sources don’t know when the government might come swooping in on their conversations, the “chilling effect” could turn into an ice age.