Obama's War of Secrets Targets the AP

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Well, the Obama White House can't say it wasn't warned. A broad investigation by the Justice Department into leaked national security secrets, a prescient editorial noted last summer, "would be a pointless exercise," serving merely to "tie individual names to leaks that were part of a coordinated group effort" and creating credibility problems for the department itself.

On second thought, maybe that editorial -- in case you haven't guessed, it appeared in Bloomberg View -- didn't go far enough. "Pointless" was too kind an adjective. A better one, now that the investigation appears to be a reality, is counterproductive.

Details remain sketchy. But the Associated Press is reporting that Attorney General Eric Holder's office apparently ran a black-ops investigation into the AP itself over reports on a foiled Al-Qaeda airliner plot, obtaining two months of work and personal phone records from reporters and editors in three bureaus, apparently relating to an article the news service published last May (after delaying its reporting at the White House's request). It's unclear whether there any warrants involved, nor has the Justice Department given a satisfactory explanation as to why the wire service was never informed as to why it sought the records.

"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications," AP Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said. "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."

I'm as skeptical as anyone over the press's tendency to reflexively invoke its First Amendment rights, especially when national security secrets are at stake. But it's hard to argue with Pruitt.

Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans have had to sacrifice some privacy in the name of shared security. We can live with that. Yet the government's side of the bargain is that it has to use its expanded powers wisely. It's hard to believe that such a massive operation against a press organization -- to find out, it seems, which of the government's own employees divulged state secrets -- can be justified. Especially from an administration that so freely offers up classified canapés for political gain that a federal judge has accused it of running "an extensive public relations campaign" based on classified information.

The government's bad faith affects more than just the news media's ability to report the facts. It hurts the government itself, by undermining its ability to protect our freedoms -- not just from dangers such as from terrorist attacks but to such rights as health care. It creates a world in which, say, claims that sensible steps on gun-sale laws are the first step toward government confiscation can start to sound rational.

Coming on the heels of revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative nonprofit groups over their tax status, there is little doubt that congressional hearings on the leaks are in the offing. It's the White House, not the press or any federal employee with loose lips, that's likely to be the next subject of scrutiny. And it should be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net