On Friday the Justice Department informed the Associated Press that in the past year law enforcement officials had seized two months worth of records from more than 20 home, cellular, and work phone lines of AP reporters and editors. This revelation has drawn harsh criticism from the press, with the AP calling it a “serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” and other journalists calling the seizures 'chilling' and a “dragnet to intimidate the media.” However, the Justice Department's irresponsible behavior has found support from two unlikely sources, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
In dissenting from the majority press opinion, O’Reilly has stressed that in historical context this is not at all a “scandal,” and may very well be justified.
In a discussion with CNN’s John King, who called the news “chilling,” Blitzer asked: “Although if you look it from the other side, if there was a serious leak about an Al-Qaeda operation or whatever, they’re trying to find out who may be leaking this information to the news media, do they occasionally have the right to secretly monitor our phone calls?”
The DOJ stance is that “we take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations.” However, in an administration which has already indicted six current and former government officials in leak-related cases — compared to three indictments in all previous administrations combined — this is being seen as yet another drastic encroachment of the executive into the freedom of news organizations beyond the legal boundary.
Justice Department regulations call for subpoenas for journalists’ phone records as a last resort, subject to approval from the attorney general himself. Further, the journalists are meant to be given notice of these subpoenas at the time they are issues, to give the journalists and their organizations a chance to challenge them in court. The Department of Justice neither gave notice of the seizure to the AP at any point before this past Friday, nor did they restrict them to what can reasonably be considered narrow parameters.
In a series of attempts to scapegoat responsibility, the White House has said it was not involved in the subpoena, and the Justice Department now says the Attorney General removed himself from the decision to subpoena the phone records.
While O’Reilly and Blitzer rightly point out that there are circumstances in which the Department of Justice has reason to encroach upon the liberties of the press, and that the investigation of leaks of CIA information may be a valid reason, the failure of the investigators to properly conduct the seizures is a true failure of this Administration. Following renewed investigations into Benghazi and the IRS scandal, I agree with Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal Daily Kos blog, when he writes that, “[for] people looking for an Obama scandal, this one spying on the AP is the first legit one.”