By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

AP probe should be a wake-up call for journalists

Trevor TimmBy Trevor Timm

As part of a new leak investigation, the Justice Department has secretly obtained the call records for 20 phone lines owned by the Associated Press, which could put sources for as many as 100 reporters at risk. The AP called the move a “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” saying they “regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

We agree. It’s time to stop looking at all of these leak investigations and prosecutions as ancillary to press freedom; they are a direct attack on it. This should be an important wake-up call for journalists.

While this incident has brought the Justice Department’s crackdown on leakers to a new extreme, it’s important to remember, this storm has been brewing for a while now. In five years, the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined, and virtually all these prosecutions have engulfed journalists in one way or another.

As part of this current investigation, we’ve known the FBI has been data-mining government officials’ phone and email records for months, looking for links to journalists on a systematic scale. The Washington Post reported in January, the FBI is using new, “sophisticated software to identify names, key words and phrases embedded in emails and other communications, including text messages, which could lead them to suspects.”

According to the Post, “The FBI also looks at officials’ phone records — who called whom, when, for how long.” Anytime the FBI found a government official has contact with the unknown number of “particular” journalists, FBI agents were “confronting” officials with this information.

A similar leak investigation to the one that has engulfed the AP is aimed at New York Times sources for its investigation into secret U.S. cyberattacks. The government refused to comment if the Justice Department has gone to similar extremes with The New York Times’ phone lines.

Regardless, as The New York Times reported on its front page in August of last year, these leak investigations are “casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings.” The Huffington Post recently interviewed several of the nation’s most prominent national security journalists, all of whom confirmed it’s a perilous time for journalists who are reporting on what the government considers secret.

The Justice Department does not deny this. When asked about the Obama administration’s crackdown on leakers last June, a senior Justice Department (DOJ) official told longtime national security reporter Shane Harris that the DOJ is “out for scalps.” Harris’ DOJ source also “made it clear that reporters who talked to sources about classified information were putting themselves at risk of prosecution.”

And it may be about to get worse.

In another leak case, New York Times reporter James Risen has been fighting a subpoena from Obama’s Justice Department for years. The Obama DOJ is after his sources for a chapter in his book “State of War.” (You can read the incredible chapter at issue, about a spectacularly bungled CIA mission that allegedly handed nuclear bomb blueprints to Iran, here.)

The Obama administration inherited the case from the Bush administration, and despite the fact that the district court judge sided with Risen during both the grand jury and trial, DOJ has continued to appeal the case. Last May, the DOJ argued before the Fourth Circuit that reporters’ privilege does not exist at all for national security reporters. Disturbingly, the Justice Department said that Risen protecting his sources was “analogous” to refusing to testify about receiving drugs from a confidential source.

The Fourth Circuit Appeals Court decision could come down any day now, and it will undoubtedly be the most important press freedom decision in a decade or more.

And while it has curiously receded from national headlines, the Justice Department also still has an active grand jury investigation open against WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. If such a prosecution succeeds, it will be open season on media organizations that publish stories that touch on information the government considers secret, putting virtually every national security journalist at risk of prosecution.

In fact, the House of Representatives held a hearing just last July in which multiple congressmen openly discussed throwing New York Times journalists in jail for publishing classified information about secret cyberattacks and CIA drone strikes. By staying quiet about the WikiLeaks grand jury, journalists only increase this risk.

The White House press secretary was quick to state that the administration is “not involved in decisions” in the AP investigation and heard about it from the media. White House officials are under investigation for this particular leak as well, so that’s no surprise. But one should not forget: the White House created this war-on-leaks monster. Congress has only encouraged its expansion, instead of investigating the wrongdoing that many of the leaks exposed.

And now, it’s out of control.

Trevor Timm is co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Republished by permission.

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  1. WOW! Or, WHOA! (@Trevor Timm) great post, dare we say? Aspirants, accolytes of/toward a crumbling Fourth Estate are having one helluva Spring break in Washington, to wit: AP, WikiLeaks, IRS, rightys, lefties, PandoraBoomBox, et al. Obviously causal wings of multiple butterflys have flapped maddeningly into that faux-representative, oxymonoric all-US-downtown-square @ D.C. and now we have the perfect storm of….?! So much to journalize, so little time. Bring lots of #2 pencils if you’re a writer headed to Washington. (btw, has anyone come up with a better economic model yet… other than ads from Mickey Ds, or J-school’s version of an ’empty-dixie-cup)? Big Bro’s Drone is circling above and we’re insiders on the belt-loop hanging out of the pocket of THIS once rainbowed hologram. Have SmartPhone, will travel? Citizen journal photo alert… it’s a frothy DC-Delta. Bring plenty of bitcoins for tolls, trolls, those pesky, pickeled, peckers… um, newly minted legal eagles. Teflon the umbrella, it’s rain’n subpoenaes.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: The New York Times made the same point in its front-page story today. I have to say, I’m not impressed. The Republicans did not suggest that the White House spy on journalists as part of the leak investigation.

      • Yes. The more I hear about it, the more disgusted I become. The fact that it may, in fact, be legal disgusts me more (and scares me). “Eric Holder should resign now” is a common and sympathetic theme, but if it’s legal to have done this, we need other (perhaps additional) remedies.

  2. Heather Greene

    I do think that the press are giving this WAY more attention then warrantless wiretaps, but that’s me. Also I think the context that this isn’t totally new or what rational behind (I think there are better ways to control the press) are missing in a lot of stories.

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