Big threat to press freedom

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By Optic Editorial Board

Republicans, Democrats and defenders of the First Amendment are decrying the decision by the Justice Department to secretly subpoena two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.

The move was an assault on the First Amendment, and President Obama’s failure to condemn it outright is disappointing. Our founding fathers realized that a free and independent press was crucial to the proper functioning of government. The press serves as a watchdog of government and an important part of the checks-and-balances system that the framers of our constitution put in place so many years ago.

So when the federal government tramples on that, we should all be concerned.
The Associated Press is the largest news-gathering organization in the world, which makes the Justice Department’s actions particularly bold. Worse still is the chilling effect that such a move could have on whistleblowers, those who see government wrong-doing and might want to speak out, but won’t for fear of the witch hunt that might ensue.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to published reports. The subpoenas appear to be an attempt by the U.S. Attorney in Washington to determine who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story revealed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in  2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the U.S.

According to AP, the plot was significant because of its seriousness and because the White House previously had told the public it had no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, were plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.

AP held off on publishing the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. AP released the story only after officials said the concerns had been allayed.

AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt sent a letter of protest to Attorney General Eric Holder last week..

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” he wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a 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.”

Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, called the Justice Department’s action “troubling,” while Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican, accused the Obama administration of engaging in “Nixonian tactics.”

“Following on the heels of news that the IRS was used as a political tool, this targeting of the media for political purposes is a shocking move that threatens the sanctity of the First Amendment and the accountability of our government,” Pearce told the Albuquerque Journal.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, meanwhile, is calling on the  Justice Department to fully explain what happened, while Rep. Ben Ray Luján said he was extremely concerned.
As we all should be.