Nobody questions the need to aggressively pursue information that can prevent another terrorist attack. Since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have used expanded surveillance tactics to interrupt plots here at home and abroad.
But the Justice Departmentís seizure of phone records at Associated Press offices appears beyond justification. It looks to be a heavy-handed tactic that should not have been allowed, one that should be condemned by President Obama.
Letís hope it was about containing the dissemination of highly classified information related to terrorism investigations and not about punishing those who speak to reporters without the administrationís permission. Itís difficult to know at this time because the Justice Department has not given a reason for seizing the phone records.
In statements Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder characterized the leaking of information to AP reporters as serious, one that put the American public at risk and required the aggressive action the Justice Department took.
Federal investigators secretly obtained the records of 20 phone lines in several Associated Press offices, including those in Washington, D.C., and New York. The records included home phones and cellphones for AP journalists, and covered two months last year.
It was around that time that an AP report on the Central Intelligence Agencyís disruption of a terrorist plot led to calls by some members of Congress to investigate the leaking of sensitive information. The Obama administration was happy to oblige. It has been more aggressive about pursuing leaks than any other previous administration, having indicted six people on charges related to leaks.
Make no mistake, the leaking of classified information that threatens national security or the lives of covert operatives is against the law and should be prosecuted. But there are plenty of ways for the worldís most powerful government to obtain information about leaks without intruding on press freedoms that are intrinsic to an open society.
The governmentís pursuit of reportersí phone records is meant to intimidate anyone who chooses to speak out against the administration. It chills free speech and makes it more difficult for the press to learn about information the government wants to keep from becoming public.
Under the Justice Departmentís own regulations, the attorney general must sign off on subpoenas for journalistsí phone records, and the subpoenas must be done only as a last resort, when all other efforts to obtain information have failed. The regulations also instruct the department to inform news organization when they seek phone records. Holder said Tuesday that his deputy had authorized the subpoena after Holder had recused himself from the investigation because of a conflict.
Either way, the AP says it was not informed until last week.
The White House says it played no part in the Justice Departmentís decision to obtain the phone records, and did not know they were obtained until learning about it from recent press reports. If true, this represents another instance when Obama will be left to answer questions about Holderís department.
Two years ago, Congress investigated the disastrous federal firearms sting operation known as Operation Fast and Furious. It resulted in weapons reaching Mexican drug gangs. Earlier this year, he told Congress some banks are too big to be prosecuted.
For now, the White House is standing behind Holder. Obama may have to re-evaluate that support. At the least, the administration should insist Americans get a full accounting of the rationale behind this relentless snooping.