IN WASHINGTON, as in any seat of power, most acts of folly begin with hubris. Government leaders usually don't intend to do the wrong thing, but they become so certain of their purpose that they are blinded by their pride.

Perhaps that's the root of the problem infecting the Justice Department, where officials secretly obtained months of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press.

That Attorney General Eric Holder or anyone else there could find that action acceptable is frightening, to say the least. When the AP's president calls this episode a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into his news-gathering operation, that's no mere hyperbole.

This wasn't some court-based fight over a subpoena of records or notes made in full public view. That sort of thing happens all the time. This was a clandestine fishing operation covering cellphones, office and home phones of not only reporters and editors, but of multiple bureaus and general switchboard numbers.

Why would the Justice Department engage in such a direct assault on the freedom of the press? AP officials speculate that it's related to the news agency's reporting of a failed al Qaeda plot last year.

Granted, the Obama administration has a right and responsibility to investigate incidents in which classified information is illegally obtained . But this latest investigation seems to be part of a pattern of aggressively going after whistle-blowers - to a degree far beyond what previous administrations have sought to do and with little care about First Amendment protections.

Add this to the recent revelation of officials at the IRS targeting tea-party-affiliated groups with added scrutiny in reviewing requests for nonprofit status, and there's a troubling pattern - a lack of interest in basic constitutional rights. The White House denied knowledge of the incidents, but that doesn't absolve it of responsibility.

The phone-records case is more than some dustup between Holder and a group of journalists. Rather, this is about the rights of all Americans.

If an administration can seek such a large amount of records revealing such critically important details about how news organizations gather material, what's to stop this or any other White House from taking a similar tack in response to criticism in the press? They need only find an excuse, a leaked document, perhaps, and then get the phone number of every person that organization has contacted from weeks or even months at a time.

That would not just have a chilling effect on news gathering - it would have a subzero effect.

If the Obama administration wants to look over the shoulders of its employees at the CIA or elsewhere in government, that's its right. Prosecutors must be free to do their jobs. But to spy on journalists or any other American without cause should not be regarded as acceptable.

Occasionally, the Daily News runs notable editorials from other papers. Today's first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.