Analysis: AP Fiasco May Foreshadow Rest of Obama’s Term

(The Justice Department kept tabs on Associated Press reporters. If President Obama doesn’t drop the hubris and show real leadership, says Doug Daniels, the next three and a half years are going to stuffed with congressional hearings and hit-job investigations by giddy Republicans, and we can forgot about advancing any progressive agenda, like gun control. Image source: AP). 

Since Sept. 11, there has been a relentless and predictable attempt, usually from those on the conservative right, to justify the erosion and suspension of constitutional liberties by playing the terrorism card. It was a thin argument then, and it still is today.

Unfortunately, the country has learned once again that the Justice Department has pursued overly intrusive policies and shrouded them in the ever-exploited name of national security. Its seizure of a broad swath of Associated Press phone records from last year has triggered an almost comically hypocritical eruption of outrage from conservatives, who largely cheered during the Bush years as that administration engaged in a tremendous amount of journalistic intimidation and constitutional overreach. But that doesn’t mean their outrage is unfounded.

Conservatives cheered George W. Bush’s journalistic intimidation and constitutional overreach, but their hypocrisy doesn’t mean their current outrage is unfounded.

While the secret subpoenas were not illegal, they stand in stark contradiction to the spirit of a free press, and it’s disingenuous, at best, for the White House to distance itself from the type of policy that has been the hallmark of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department. On the issue of leaks, this administration has crossed the line from thoroughness into zealotry, selectively prosecuting leaks it finds politically damaging, while shrugging off others, (like the one concerning the Bin Laden operation, for instance.) So far during the Obama presidency, six people have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which previously had only been used three times throughout its entire history. Any journalist who has worked in Washington understands the reality of leaks: They are an accepted component of the DC machinery.

The focus in this case has understandably been on the violation of trust between the government and the press. However, reporters from an organization like the AP won’t be intimidated. In fact, they’ll likely become emboldened and more aggressive.

But when it comes to leaks, press intimidation has never been the central objective of this administration; intimidating potential whistle-blowers has.

The Justice Department, of course, insists its actions were entirely necessary for the purposes of national security. But the records were obtained with no prior notification to the AP, and included work and personal phones used by more than 100 reporters over a two month period in multiple states. Obviously many of these conversations were entirely unrelated to the investigation centering on a terror plot out of Yemen. And the AP says it withheld the story in question until they were told there was no longer a national security threat. Even Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, openly expressed his skepticism that the government’s fishing expedition could be justified.

Obama seems oddly content to allow parts of his administration to spiral out of control while he stands on the sidelines.

On Wednesday, in a transparent attempt at damage control, the White House instructed its Senate liaison to ask Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to reintroduce his press shield bill that stalled in 2009. The law would be a good first step in protecting journalists and their sources, but it’s unclear whether such a law would have prevented the staggering breadth of the subpoenas in the case of the Associated Press.

Between the AP story and the IRS scandal, reasonable Americans (beyond the Tea Party nihilists and conspiracy theorists) probably aren’t feeling too confident in their government at the moment. The president’s reaction has been far too tepid and detached. It’s time for him to send a very clear message by making heads roll at the IRS and Justice Department. Eric Holder has long-overstayed his welcome and should resign, along with Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who oversaw the AP investigation after Holder recused himself.

But more important than personnel changes, the White House should make it clear these types of policies will not continue, and the president should very aggressively pursue legislation that would make conversations between reporters and sources privileged and not subject to subpoena.

For a president that obsesses over message management, Obama seems oddly content to allow parts of his administration to spiral out of control while he stands on the sidelines. If he doesn’t demonstrate some real leadership and show that the type of hubris on display this week is unacceptable, the rest of his term will be defined by congressional hearings and investigations, not by the progress he could achieve on landmark issues like immigration reform, gun control, and health-care reform, which still has a bumpy road towards implementation.

If the president’s whiny, evasive tone this week is any indication, those of us with hopes for genuine progressive reforms may have a rough three and a half years ahead.

 

Doug Daniels, a freelance journalist, is a former staff reporter for Campaigns & Elections. He is the author of the forthcoming memoir Sifting Through the Wreckage.