[To order the Freedom Center's pamphlet "Ten Reasons to Impeach Eric Holder," written by Department of Justice whistleblower J. Christian Adams, click here.]
Just as the Obama administration’s IRS-targeting scandal has started to metastasize, a new controversy has erupted over the government’s monitoring of one of the nation’s largest press bureaus. Using a series of broad subpoenas, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) secretly obtained two months of telephone records belonging to reporters and editors working for the Associated Press (AP). A letter notifying the AP to that effect was sent last Friday by Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington. AP’s president and chief executive, Gary B. Pruitt, characterized the DOJ’s actions as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news gathering activities. Much more than that, it is a testament to the compromised state of today’s Justice Department, which has been deeply corrupted by its leader, Attorney General Eric Holder.
The records taken by the DOJ included more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists, including cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor, as well as general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, DC and Hartford, CN. Records for the main AP number in the House of Representatives press gallery were also seized. It remains unknown how many journalists used the phone lines, and unclear if the records included incoming calls. The records were for calls made in April and May of 2012.
At a press conference yesterday, Holder attempted to defuse the furor surrounding this apparent scandal. But right off the bat, it became apparent that stonewalling was the order of the day. Despite a DOJ guideline requiring him to personally approve a subpoena of news organization records, Holder told reporters that he had recused himself from the investigation, and that Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, who led the investigation, had issued it. Thus, when reporters began asking specific questions about the seizure of AP phone records, Holder pleaded ignorance. “I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts,” he contended. Yet even as he dodged specific questions about the investigation, it remains clear that Holder was well aware of what was occurring. Furthermore, he had the power to call off this unwarranted intrusion into the AP’s entire operation if he so desired. That he didn’t speaks volumes.
The DOJ refused to say why it sought the information. But administration officials are on the record regarding an investigation into the leaking of classified materials published by the AP on May 7, 2012. That story disclosed an al Qaeda plot to place a second underwear bomber on an airplane. In addition, CIA director John Brennan testified in February that the FBI questioned him about whether he was the AP’s source for the story. Brennan denied the allegation, and characterized the release of information to the media about the terror plot as an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”
Not surprisingly, the five reporters and an editor who were assigned to that particular AP story were among those who had their phone records seized.
In a letter sent to Holder, Pruitt contended the DOJ had sought far more information than could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded that the government return all phone records and destroy any copies of them. “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt 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.”
AP reporters are equally upset. “People are pretty mad–mad that government has not taken what we do seriously,” one reporter told Politico yesterday. “When the news broke yesterday … people were outraged and disgusted. No one was yelling and screaming, but it was like, ‘Are you kidding me!?’” Another reporter noted the consequences that could attend these revelations. “We all know that confidential sourcing is the lifeblood of what we do, and people can’t come to us if they think they’re going to be compromised,” the reporter said. “It’s hard enough getting sources, now we’re afraid this is going to have a chilling effect.”
There is ample reason to believe that this chilling effect is intentional. In addition to the DOJ guidelines that require the subpoena of news organization records to be personally approved by the Attorney General, other guidelines reveal that a subpoena can only be considered after “all reasonable attempts” have been made to get the same information from other sources. The subpoena must also be “as narrowly drawn as possible” and “be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period.” The DOJ explicitly acknowledges these constraints are required in order to avoid actions that “might impair the news gathering function,” because the government understands that “freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news.” However, the DOJ has opted to ignore all of these guidelines, and it is almost impossible to believe that this could have occurred without Holder’s knowledge or approval. It is unknown who even signed off on the subpoenas. In the process, the Holder DOJ has sent a powerful message that it has no reservations about being overbearing with inconvenient members of the press.
Furthermore, normally a news organization is notified in advance if the government wants phone records, after which negotiations ensue. Yet as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia explained in a statement released Monday, the DOJ asserts it is not required to notify a media organization in advance of issuing such subpoenas if doing so “would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.” Yet as of now, no one has illuminated the details of the how the investigation could have been compromised. Nor are details forthcoming regarding the “reasonable effort” made to obtain the information “through alternative means.”
Records have been seized from media organizations before, but the size and the scope of this seizure may be unprecedented. “I’ve never heard of a dragnet collection effort against a media organization like this,” said Stephen Aftergood, who tracks secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists. “This was not a targeted monitoring of an individual reporter. It’s a sweeping collection of an entire bureau’s communications.” Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland concurred. “Unfortunately, the Justice Department does this now and again,” she explained. “What’s very unusual is the scope of the subpoenas.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) was also troubled by the possibility that the government had not justified the need for a secret subpoena. “The burden is always on the government when they go after private information–especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” he said. “I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden.”
There was no shortage of DOJ critics in government and media either. “It’s chilling, and they owe us an explanation,” said NBC News Political Director and White House correspondent Chuck Todd. “This is intimidation and that’s what it feels and looks like and unless they have a different explanation, there is no other conclusion to draw than a way to intimidate whistleblowers.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) framed the issue within the context of the Constitution. “The Fourth Amendment is not just a protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, it is a fundamental protection for the First Amendment and all other Constitutional rights,” he said. “It sets a high bar–a warrant–for the government to take actions that could chill exercise of any of those rights. We must guard it with all the vigor that we guard other constitutional protections.”
NBC reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, was apoplectic. “It is outrageous, totally inexcusable,” he fumed. “This administration has been terrible on this subject from the beginning. The object of it is to intimidate people who talk to reporters. This was an accident waiting to become a nuclear event and now it’s happened. There’s no excuse for it whatsoever. There’s no reason for this investigation, especially on this scale.”
In what has become a recurring theme for the White House regarding several burgeoning scandals afflicting the administration, White House press Secretary Jay Carney insisted the president was unaware of the investigation. “Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP,” said Carney. “We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department. Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice.”
In other words, regarding an investigation that threatens to undermine some of the most cherished freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, the two highest law enforcement officials in the nation are insisting they were out of the loop.
So far, Holder’s claims of “recusal” from the situation have not satisfied his critics. Once again, as he did last February when Holder was embroiled in the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal — which earned the AG a contempt of Congress citation — Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus called for Holder’s resignation, because he has “trampled on the First Amendment and failed in his sworn duty to uphold the Constitution.”
It is just standard operating procedure at Eric Holder’s DOJ. “Ten Reasons to Impeach Eric Holder,” written by former DOJ attorney J. Christian Adams and published by FrontPage, offers a devastating compendium of Holder’s contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law and exposes much more of the story. Going into great detail about Holder’s various acts of malfeasance over the course of 31 pages, Adams bluntly explains that Holder is a “threat to American liberty and security.” “The havoc he has created goes far beyond corruption on any single issue,” writes Adams. “The damage he has done crosses all components of the Department of Justice, and has trickled down to infect the systems of law and legal jurisprudence throughout the country.”
This infection will only be eradicated by the removal of Eric Holder from his post. With the press now taking notice and uncharacteristically fuming over this latest affair, perhaps the beginning of the end has set in for the Attorney General at last.
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