The Corner

Lack of Adult Supervision in the Obama Administration

The unfolding of the Obama administration’s aggressive attitude toward the media continues to reveal the same sorry themes as the other scandals erupting inside the Beltway. First is partisanship. This weekend came news that the Justice Department conducted an invasive investigation into the daily activities of Fox News reporter James Rosen, to the point where the Department judged him a “conspirator” in violating the laws against leaking classified information. Does anyone recall a similar pursuit of New York Times and Washington Post reporters during the Bush years? No? I didn’t think so. Both outlets published extremely sensitive classified information that harmed our national security during the Bush years, and in the last five years both papers have published sensitive information on the operation of the drone programs and the bin Laden killing.

To an outside observer it appears that the Obama Justice Department has selected for investigation the media outlets whose editorial views are most hostile to its political leaders, while giving a pass to friendly organizations that might have published leaks that benefit the White House.

The second theme is the lack of adult supervision over the most important functions of the U.S. government. I am sure that in all of these cases, there were career prosecutors who would like to pursue the media. It is the job of the political appointees in any administration to stop cases that might fall within the letter of the law, but make terrible sense in terms of the use of the executive branch’s resources or of broader values that might not occur to career civil servants.

The fact that the political leadership of the Obama Justice Department must have signed off on the investigation shows how mediocre the appointees in the Department have become. On the other hand, if the Obama folks blame it all on the career prosecutors, it shows that they cannot even do their job of managing the department. The fact that this negligence has occurred in one of the executive branch’s most important, unique functions — investigating and prosecuting crime — only raises deeper doubts that this administration cannot manage the government competently.

In the Bush administration, there were some who wanted to pursue the media over classified leaking. I for one thought that these proposals were ill-conceived and raised problems under the First Amendment’s protection for a free press. I don’t believe that the Bush Justice Department — allegedly so hostile to civil liberties — undertook any of them. The only example I can think of was the independent counsel investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity to the press, which only went to show how bad an idea most independent-counsel investigations are. Only the Obama administration has authorized the tailing of reporters, monitoring of their phone calls and e-mails, and watching their sources.

Add up all the recent scandals and the message is clear: the Obama administration is showing that it cannot be trusted with the basic functions of government: law enforcement (surveillance of reporters), taxation (IRS scandals), and national security (Benghazi).

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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