Ought to be outraged

The obligation of a citizen is an overwhelming job.

To do it properly, one needs to track and comings and goings of lawmakers, government officials and agencies from the local level to Washington, D.C.

The average, individual citizen would be hard-pressed to accomplish such a mission.

That’s why there are newspapers.

Newspapers hire journalists to track down important governmental information, report on meetings, and quiz lawmakers. Journalists report to the people the information they need to be good citizens.

That’s why this information is often called the public’s right to know.

In essence, journalists are representing the people when they dig for news.

That’s what makes the news that U.S. Justice Department gathered phone records from The Associated Press so unsettling.

During an the investigation of national security leaks, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the AP, seizing the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists in April and May 2012.

That would be as if the Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of your household.

Such an abuse of power is not right. This should not happen in the U.S.

Americans ought to be outraged that it did.

The reason for the seizure was the Obama Administration was hunting down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to thwart an airliner bombing plot around the anniversary of the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Someone in the administration talked to the media, and Holder wants his or her head.

In America, subpoenas for such information should be subject to judicial review – before they are executed. Didn’t we go through this outrageous misuse of power with Richard Nixon? It took America years to recover.

AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt called the gathering of phone records a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

Attorney General Eric Holder, meanwhile, under questioning from the House Judiciary Committee, denied any knowledge of the operation.

“It’s an ongoing matter and an ongoing matter in which I know nothing,” Holder told the panel. It was the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek the phone records, Holder claimed.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and major news organizations are calling on the U.S. Justice Department to return secretly subpoenaed phone records of more than 100 Associated Press journalists, to explain how such an egregious overreach could happen and outline what will be done to mitigate the damage.

In a letter to Holder and Cole, the Reporters Committee and 50 news organizations said, “In the 30 years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review.”

“This inexcusable breach of respect for the independence of the news media and for the importance of confidential sources underscores the need for a federal shield law,” said Reporters Committee Chairman Tony Mauro, U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for The National Law Journal. “The fact that the Justice Department feels entitled to secretly seize the telephone records of scores of journalists runs counter to the free press guarantee of the First Amendment.

“This subpoena puts an arctic chill on the invaluable information reporters glean from confidential sources every day, thwarting the public’s right to know what its government is doing,” Mauro said in a statement. “We once thought the Attorney General’s guidelines would prevent this kind of overly broad fishing expedition, but this case makes it apparent that the guidelines are inadequate.”

Moreover, the leaders of the news organization whose members cover Congress told Cole that “your agency has not provided adequate reason for this disconcerting action.”

“We are concerned the incursions by the Justice Department in this case jeopardize the relationship between reporters and anonymous sources, decreasing the likelihood that people will come forward with vital information of public importance,” the representatives of the Congressional press galleries said in a letter.

“The press must be secure in its ability to conduct its business,” the letter stated. “This critical work of reporters is protected by the First Amendment. Please explain how this unparalleled use of your investigative power is constitutionally consistent.”

We’ll be waiting for an answer.