Experts in Washington, D.C., have been shocked lately by the grand canyon that has ripped through the heart of the nation’s capital. On one side of this massive rift stand the words of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. On the other ridge, far in the distance, one barely can detect their actual deeds.
For instance, Obama said last Wednesday, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.” He added, “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
These soothing words should calm nerves in newsrooms from coast to coast. Alas, they clash violently with Obama’s actions.
Somewhere around May 2012, the Justice Department seized two months of records from 21 office, home, and cellular telephones used by an estimated 100 journalists at the Associated Press. These numbers included AP’s landline in the House of Representatives Press Gallery and its main switchboards in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn. This massive intervention supposedly was required to plug a national-security leak related to U.S. counterterrorism operations against violent Muslim extremists based in Yemen.
“This was a very, very serious leak,” Holder said on May 14. “I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 — and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, in the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk — and that is not hyperbole.”
Given Holder’s frightening words about this gushing national-security leak — no worse than the third-most worrisome he has encountered in 37 years — his conduct makes no sense. Rather than immediately inform Obama that the AP was spewing classified information more dangerously than almost anyone else since America’s Bicentennial, Holder supposedly kept this to himself.
Regarding the Justice Department’s spying on the AP, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on May 14 that Obama “found out about that from news reports yesterday” — about one year after Holder did.
Rather than cavalierly publishing classified material without government knowledge, the AP cooperated with the administration, which asked it to hold the story for five days. The AP honored this request, AP CEO Gary Pruitt told CBS’s Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation on May 19.
“On the fifth day, we heard from high officials in two parts of the government that the national-security issues had passed and at that point, we released the story,” Pruitt explained. But the AP then learned that “the White House wanted us to hold it another day because they wanted to announce this successful foiling of the plot,” Pruitt continued. “We didn’t think that was a legitimate reason for holding the story.”
Schieffer pointed out that “the top terrorism guy at the White House, John Brennan, went on television the next morning and told the story.” Brennan boasted about Team Obama’s unraveling a terrorist plot to blow up a U.S-bound jumbo jet.
Thus, the AP seems less guilty of spilling state secrets than of scooping Obama’s election-year efforts to pound his chest and proclaim himself al-Qaeda’s most ferocious enemy. By beating Obama to this news by one day, AP apparently triggered this unprecedented federal intrusion on its work.
Pruitt said that the AP has begun to feel the chilling effects of Team Obama’s actions.
“We’re already seeing some impact,” Pruitt noted. “Already, officials who would normally talk to us and people we talk to in the normal course of news gathering are already saying to us that they’re a little reluctant to talk to us. They fear that they will be monitored by the government. . . . It’s not hypothetical. We’re actually seeing impact already.”
Back across Capital Canyon, Holder’s words were as comforting as the First Amendment itself.
“With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I’ve ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy,” Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15. He added, “The focus should be on those people who break their oath and put the American people at risk, not reporters who gather this information. That should not be the focus . . . of these investigations.”