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.”
Despite sounding like the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize committee, Holder’s behavior again turned 180 degrees opposite his statements.
As NBC News reports, Holder discussed and personally signed a request for a search warrant to sift through the e-mails of James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for the Fox News Channel, which I serve as an on-air contributor. The warrant also covered 28 phone numbers, ranging from lines at Fox News’ Rockefeller Center headquarters to those at its Washington bureau, and Fox’s workspaces at the White House and the State Department. The Feds seized records tied to Rosen’s cell line and even the phone at his mother and father’s home on New York’s Staten Island. Justice also used readings from Rosen’s press ID card to track his movements into and out of the State Department.
In an unprecedented move, Justice secured this search warrant by claiming that a journalist was a “possible co-conspirator” in violating the 1917 Espionage Act. FBI agent Reginald Reyes’s affidavit said Rosen “asked, solicited and encouraged Mr. Kim to disclose sensitive United States internal documents and intelligence information.” Kim Stephen Jin-Woo Kim is a former State Department official indicted for leaking classified information to Rosen.
If Rosen is a spy, why let him stroll into and out of the State Department for perhaps as long as three years? Yes, there is some value in observing an investigative target to identify his contacts and understand what he knows. But after a while, the potential rewards of this surveillance surely must outweigh the risks of having a putative North Korean operative traipsing through the State Department.
Of course, it could be that Rosen is not a covert agent, and he has not been busy advancing Pyongyang’s atomic-weapons program. More likely, he is just a hard-working FNC journalist trying to do his job.
“The Justice Department’s decision to treat routine newsgathering efforts as evidence of criminality is extremely troubling and corrodes time-honored understandings between the public and the government about the role of the free press,” Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told NBC’s national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff.
Fox News president Roger Ailes described this situation as “a climate of press intimidation, unseen since the McCarthy era.”
Obama responded to such concerns by saying last Thursday, “I’ve called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach.” So, what America needs is a new law, signed by Obama, to fix a problem that Obama just created. This is government as Mobius strip.
Even more ominous for Holder, having his words and deeds on opposite sides of Capital Canyon suggests one thing: “Perjury is on the table,” as one congressional aide put it. Indeed, the House Judiciary Committee confirmed on Tuesday that it is scrutinizing Holder for possibly committing that high crime.
Meanwhile, “my Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” Obama announced early in his reign via a memo to heads of federal departments and agencies. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” He declared last February: “This is the most transparent administration in history.”
But across Capital Canyon from Obama’s glowing statement sits his dismal plan for dealing with his administration’s assaults on freedom of the press.
“I have raised these issues with the attorney general, who shares my concern,” Obama said on May 24. “So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review . . . I have directed the attorney general to report back to me by July 12.”
So, rather than an open, transparent, and credible probe by an outside investigator, Obama’s big idea is to ask Eric Holder to ask Eric Holder what he knew and when he knew it. After that, Eric Holder will give Obama his professional opinion about Eric Holder’s performance.
The dangers of this fool’s errand are two-fold:
First, unless Holder shocks the nation and finds Holder guilty of wrongdoing, this will look like a thorough and insulting whitewash. This will grind away what little confidence Americans still may have in the Justice Department.
Second, even more foolishly, if Holder very cleanly and fairly reviews all of his and his department’s procedures and — without even a hint of corruption — determines that he and his staff acted prudently and well within the law, such an honest judgment will be considered an act of wrongdoing, in and of itself.
Why risk such institutional damage with a self-probe that will be greeted, at best, as a punch line and, at worst, as yet another Obama cover-up?
Capital Canyon grows wider and deeper by the day. Before long, the District of Columbia will resemble the Arizona desert, and the Potomac will mirror the patient but relentlessly erosive Colorado River.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.