This has not been a good week for President Obama. First it was learned that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative organizations with special scrutiny, the practice of which the White House said it was unaware. Then news surfaced that the Department of Justice secretly obtained phone records of as many as 20 Associated Press reporters and editors to find out the source of some confidential material that was apparently leaked.
The White House said it was unaware of that prior to the news reports. As one reporter noted “The Obama Administration is unaware of what the Obama Administration is doing.”
In explaining the DOJ investigation, the administration sent out Attorney General Eric Holder who promptly said he didn’t know much because he recused himself to avoid a conflict of interest. Apparently reports now say it was undertaken by the Deputy Attorney General who was not made available to answer questions such as the nature of the leak or why the AP was targeted. Holder said the leak was “very, very serious” that “required very aggressive action.” How aggressive? It was pretty aggressive and sweeping by any standard of past practices.
The AP said authorities obtained cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and editors; AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn.; and the main number for reporters covering Congress.
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said: “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”
AP President Gary Pruitt said “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 White House press secretary said: “The president is a strong defender of the First Amendment” but he “also of course recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence.” It would appear the White House feels aggressive investigation trumps First Amendment freedoms. This should come as no surprise to media watchers.
In 2007, a proposed federal media shield law would have protected the AP in such a case and Obama backed it when he was a U.S. Senator and most recently during his election campaign in 2008.
There was no attempt by the administration to seek cooperation from the AP at the start of the investigation; it presumed its power and wielded it unabashedly with little regard for press freedom. This is not the action of a president who is a strong defender of the First Amendment. Contrary to the statement the administration doesn’t know what it’s doing, it does and that is troubling.