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Seizure of Associated Press records reeks of arrogance

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Posted: Saturday, May 18, 2013 12:00 am

When informed that the Justice Department had seized a trove of Associated Press phone records, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said: "If the Obama administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation."

From what we can tell, though, the explanation for this slap at the First Amendment is not damned good, but damned weak.

Over portions of two months, Justice Department investigators pored over thousands of records reflecting work, home and cellphone usage by almost 100 people at the AP, one of the world's most respected and venerable news organizations.

Attorney General Eric Holder maintains the government needed to collect all this information because the AP had published a story based on a leak that endangered national security.

The article was about how the CIA had foiled a plot by the al-Qaida branch in Yemen to destroy an airliner using a bomb.

But Holder's explanation, as we said, appears feeble.

The AP actually sat on the story until the government assured top editors that any national security concerns had passed.

And Holder's minions ignored the Justice Department's own policies in gathering information from news organizations. Those policies include trying to negotiate for the information before seeking a subpoena. If a subpoena must be issued, it should be fashioned "in a minimally invasive and burdensome fashion."

The AP was never contacted before the phone records were grabbed. The subpoena was not tightly focused, but a blunderbuss blast at the work of numerous journalists in Washington, New York, and Connecticut.

In essence, Holder, when it comes to the national security threat, is saying, "Just trust us on this."

We aren't so inclined.

This seizure reeks of an imperial arrogance seldom seen since the Nixon White House and its employment of so-called "plumbers."

That secret, sleazy gang was recruited to plug leaks of classified information but somehow wound up burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a building known as the Watergate.

Still, why should anyone outside of the mainstream media give a hoot about government attorneys pawing through AP's phone records?

Simply put, the Justice Department's search-and-seizure hurts the ability of journalists at AP and elsewhere to cover government.

It could chill the willingness of sources to come forward and offer critical information.

It could cause whistleblowers to remain silent.

Who, after all, wants to call a journalist and provide critical information about government misdeeds knowing that government will learn of their communication?

The country's founders feared this kind of governmental intrusion more than 200 years ago.

Under British rule, colonial journalists were tossed in jail for writing things about the king that the king didn't appreciate, even if they were true.

So James Madison was instructed to draft the First Amendment, a portion of which reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."

The wise people who drafted the Constitution knew the press needed to be protected to remain vigilant.

They knew no king, no government should have the power to silence critics or suppress the truth.

The Obama administration would do well to reflect on the wisdom of our founders — and put an end to these witch hunt escapades before they grow more sinister.

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