The Obama administration is starting to make extraordinary abuses of power look ordinary. Hard on the heels of the revelation of an IRS crackdown on conservative groups comes news that federal prosecutors orchestrated a roundup of journalists' telephone records, leaving yet another set of federal boot prints on the First Amendment.
Any criminal investigation of journalistic activity is a potentially troubling threat to press freedom, but the scope and secrecy of the dragnet at hand make it particularly offensive. Authorities obtained two months of records of cellular, home, and office phones used by a total of about 100 Associated Press journalists. They did not disclose the seizure to the news organization until last week, about a year later.
The expedition appears to have been fishing for the sources who gave reporters the details of a foiled terrorist plot. But AP president Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that most of the records could have "no plausible connection to any ongoing investigation" and were bound to "disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know." Noting that federal regulations require subpoenas of reporters' records to be as narrow as possible, he accused the Justice Department of "serious interference with AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news."
Pruitt has plenty of company. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post that authorities had committed "an astonishing assault on core values of our society." The American Civil Liberties Union's Ben Wizner called it "an unacceptable abuse of power."
Republicans in Congress were also quick to criticize the move. However, they were also quick to urge the administration to go after leaks last year, when they charged that disclosures of national security information were meant to make the president look tough as the election approached.
Ironically, despite promises of unprecedented openness, President Obama has been tougher on leaks than any of his predecessors. This latest repugnant result gives him an opportunity to renounce and reverse that course.