May 28, 2013 9:43:40 AM
"Freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news."-- U.S. Department of Justice regulation
ROLLING FORK--There is a reason why the First Amendment is the first amendment to the Constitution. It's the most important one.
Late Monday afternoon, a week ago, when the news that the U.S. Department of Justice had secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press came across the same computer screen displaying what I am now writing, I said aloud, "Oh, my God."
When I quickly telephoned my friend and executive director of the Mississippi Press Association Layne Bruce to inform him, he said aloud, "Oh, my God. I was having a pretty good day until now."
Because this is a big deal, folks, not just to members of the press, but to everybody else in the country. Because as Layne and I were later to say, almost in unison, to each other, "If they will do this to The AP, they will do it to anybody."
In today's world of almost instantaneous but often erroneous information dispersal, The AP, a cooperative of thousands of news institutions, remains the trusted backbone of national and international reporting.
In all, the Justice Department secretly seized the records of more than 20 phone lines used by up to 100 AP journalists during April and May of 2012. Those records listed the incoming and ongoing calls and the personal numbers of individual reporters in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., offices. Incredibly, that also included the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to lawyers for the organization.
While there is no excuse justifiable enough for such an egregious act that violates any number of the Justice Department's printed guidelines, the one it is clinging to is the always popular "national security" implications of an ongoing investigation into the identity of the individual who leaked information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that detailed CIA efforts in Yemen to stop a terrorist plot.
That argument weakens considerably, however, by consideration of the fact that the AP cooperated with the government's request at that time and delayed disseminating its story until after the time the plot had been successfully foiled. Neither lives nor the success of that operation were at stake or jeopardized.
The truth of the matter is less noble.
While it would recoil in horror at the comparison, the fact is that the Obama administration is and has been almost Nixonian in its preoccupation with plugging leaks to the press from within its governmental ranks, having already brought more cases against suspected leakers than all other previous presidents combined.
And this, the secret subpoenaing of reporters' phone records, from the administration whose stated commitment to transparency is rivaled only by its stated commitment to civil liberties.
It is simply the latest example of how virtually every second term presidency, regardless of party or philosophy, cannot seem to avoid falling into the hubris-baited trap of over-reaching. They go too far. They do things they shouldn't, simply because they have come to believe they can.
But this is no minor screw-up. This is literally what The AP's top executive called, "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news and it clearly, in the words of the First Amendment, "abridges the freedom of the press" to do that very thing.
And it must be remembered, this is no run-of-the-mill government agency full of pencil-pushing bureaucrats. This is the Department of Justice, full of lawyers who do, or certainly should know better
These are what are supposed to be the good guys. And when the good guys go trampling all over the rights and freedoms they are sworn and empowered to uphold, who is then left to defend those rights and freedoms from them?
There is, of course, only the press, which is why the First Amendment is the most important one.