May 19, 2013

Beat the Press

Why the A.P. Phone Records Seizure Should Frighten Us All.

Forget about Benghazi or the IRS’s alleged targeting of “nonprofit” Tea Party groups. There is a scandal brewing in the Obama White House—one that should outrage all Americans who care about civil liberties. But it is not either of these media obsessions. The real scandal is the Justice Department’s unprecedented seizure of the Associated Press’ phone records.
As the AP reported last week, the Department of Justice secretly obtained two months’ worth of its reporters’ and editors’phone records without a warrant or justifiable cause. The records cover over 20 AP reporters’ telephone lines, including their homes, offices and cell phones. AP President, Gary Pruitt denounced the move, and called on Attorney General Eric Holder to return the phone records and destroy all its copies.

In a letter to Holder, Pruitt wrote, “We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

The DOJ claims it needs the phone records to identify a source who allegedly leaked information to AP reporters regarding a foiled terrorist plot originating in Yemen. However, as former constitutional lawyer and Guardian blogger, Glenn Greenwald notes, “The legality of the DOJ’s actions is impossible to assess because it is not even known what legal authority it claims nor the legal process it invoked to obtain these records. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the DOJ’s power to obtain phone records is… dangerously broad” (“Justice Department’s pursuit of AP phone records is both extreme and dangerous,”05/14/2013).
Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges agreed. Speaking on Democracy Now! last week (05/15/13), Hedges called the seizure “frightening.”

“[I]t is one more assault in a long series of assault against freedom of information and freedom of the press,” he said. “And I would also, of course, throw in the persecution of Julian Assange at WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning as part of that process.”
The Obama administration has overseen more prosecutions of government whistleblowers than any other administration in history. Barack Obama has invoked the 1917 Espionage Act twice as many times as all previous administrations combined. What is further infuriating is Obama—a former constitutional scholar—ran in 2008 on a platform of “restoring transparency” to government. Instead, he has done just the opposite. Perhaps that explains why the transparency theme was largely absent from his 2012 campaign.
Whistleblowers, government insiders and other often times “off the record” sources are crucial to investigative journalism. The classic example is “Deep Throat,” who helped Woodward and Bernstein break the Watergate break-in story during the Nixon years. Without Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt), The Washington Post reporters would never have been able to shed light on the Watergate scandal.

Both these intrepid whistleblowers and the reporters who bring their insider information to the public are an indispensable part of democracy. The very job of journalism is to serve as a watchdog of government and corporate entities. It is to bring citizens the truth—no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable that truth may be. And while it is true the privately-owned, corporate news media have not always lived up to this standard, the press (print-news, in particular) is one of the few remaining safeguards to protect democracy and an open society. Indeed, as history has shown, when totalitarian forces shut down free countries, the press is typically the first institution that is silenced.
But Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on leakers has created a chilling effect.
According to Hedges in the aforementioned interview:

“If you talk to investigative journalists in this country, who must investigate the inner workings of government, no one will talk, even on background. People are terrified. And this is, of course… not really about AP. It’s about going after that person or those people who leaked this story and shutting them down. And this canard that it [the leaked information] endangered American life…there’s no evidence for this.”
Yet the “liberal” media seems more upset that the IRS singled out some right-wing political organizations attempting to pass themselves off as nonprofit, “social welfare” groups, than the DOJ’s gross violation of the First Amendment. Not to suggest, mind you, that liberal groups do not do the same thing., for instance, is registered as a tax-exempt, 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
Indeed, many media outlets are defending the DOJ’s move. The Nation’s Leslie Savan--who, like so many other reporters, lumps the genuine AP scandal in with the IRS and Benghazi pseudo-scandals--urges readers to “take a deep breath” (“Don’t Get Sucked Into Obama Scandal-Mania,” 5/16/13). She then, in classic liberal style, blames the phone records seizure on the Republicans. Savan writes:

“Republicans have made a fine art out of demanding Obama do something, then attacking him when he does… [N]ow the same Republicans, like Joe Scarborough, who were screaming for Obama to shut down national security leaks like the one in Yemen, are now screaming that he’s trampling on free speech.”
But Republicans’ double-standard opportunism—however hypocritical—while perhaps noteworthy, does not actually address the severity of the issue. Then again, I suppose that is the point—shoot the messenger, ignore the message.
Over at the left-leaning Daily Banter website, Oliver Willis decries the Associated Press—and the news media in general—for apparently believing they are above the law (“Dear Professional Press, You Aren’t Special,” 5/15/13). “The press does not have special powers not afforded to the rest of us,” Willis sneers. “If you have material relevant to a crime and think that magical source protection applies, there’s no constitutional right to a confidential source.”
Curious side note: Does Willis consider himself a member of the “professional press”? And, if not, does that mean he belongs instead to the class of “unprofessional” press? Just wondering…
Regardless of what Obama apologists and the outright uninformed may think, the U.S. news media does have freedom of the press protections. And this is not the first instance of blatant hostility to those protections on the part of the Obama White House.
New York Times editor, Andrew Rosenthal, sums things up best (“Did the A.P. Leak ‘Put the American People at Risk’?”, 5/17/13). Noting that the AP editors held off on publishing the insider account for five days at the request of the CIA, Rosenthal makes clear the nation was not “at risk.”
“Hyperventilating about threats to ‘the American people’ a year later is outrageous,” he writes. “Mr. Holder might have directed some of that energy into prosecuting crooked bankers and mortgage companies or, say, people who tortured prisoners.”

Adam Marletta is a freelance writer and the secretary of the Portland Green Independent Committee.

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