The U.S. Justice Department appears to have crossed a bright line that shields one of the cherished tenets of the nation's Constitution that the agency's top officers take an oath to protect and defend.
This dangerous intrusion cannot be allowed to stand.
It's been revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months worth of telephone records — in April and May 2012 — of reporters and editors working for The Associated Press. The top AP news executive correctly called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into a major newsgathering and reporting apparatus.
This development is an outrageous and frightening infringement of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects a free press in this country in an unambiguous manner. It means the government must keep its hands off media's ability to do their job on behalf of the public.
The AP is deeply concerned, as all news organizations should be, that the capture of these phone records potentially compromises the organization's sources' confidentiality, which is a critical component in its reporting.
AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt's scathing letter to Attorney General Eric Holder lays it out clearly. "There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters," Pruitt wrote. "These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all the newsgathering activities by the AP during the 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."
To date, the Justice Department has been mum on why it obtained the records. There has been some discussion about a May 7, 2012, AP story about a failed terror plot in Yemen that involved a plan to detonate a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound jetliner. The plot was thought to coincide with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of a SEAL commando team.
The government should be concerned about disclosure of classified information. It is within its right to counsel reporters and editors about risks involved in disclosing information that poses a potential threat to national security.
But seizing phone records of reporters and editors doing their job is an overreach that threatens the sanctity of the first amendment to our nation's founding document.
The Justice Department has policies that govern the rules by which it can obtain phone records. It must exhaust all other efforts before issuing subpoenas, according to the Wall Street Journal. The DOJ has declared that the reason for the rules is to avoid any action that "might impair the newsgathering function." Thus, the Department of Justice likely has broken its own rules.
White House officials declare they know nothing about DOJ's actions regarding the phone records. That leaves the Justice Department with some serious explaining to do, so we the people can determine who knew what, in — or outside of — that agency.