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Snooping on reporters? Egads!

Date published: 5/19/2013

WHATEVER the Justice Department was going after when it secretly obtained Associated Press reporters' and editors' phone records probably isn't going to be worth the trouble.

Justice apparently was trying to find out who talked to the news media about a foiled al-Qaida effort to blow up an airliner bound for the United States last year. The Obama administration has been a bulldog about such government leaks. It has prosecuted six present and former government officials so far for giving out secret material, more than all the administrations from Washington to W combined.

In this case, though, the end does not justify the means. The means was ham-handed, leaving big, muddy footprints almost all the way to the top. Eric Holder, the attorney general of the United States, had to personally approve the subpoenas. He, if not someone higher, must answer for this.

Prosecutors are supposed to make every effort to get the information they need without going after reporters and the sources they promised to protect. Past efforts never went so far. This one reeled in the home, cell, and office phone records from a wide variety of AP personnel over two months. It was like using a sledgehammer to squash a gnat.

Even such less-than-storied defenders of the press as House Speaker John Boehner claimed indignation. "The First Amendment is first for a reason," Boehner spokesman Michael Steele fulminated, perhaps inspired as much by politics as by justice. "If the Obama administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation."

Justice's justification for not notifying the AP in advance and thus enabling the news organization to fight the action in court was that it can forgo such niceties if the integrity of the investigation would be put in jeopardy. It is a somewhat hazy standard.

The strict guidelines governing reporters' notes and records go back to Watergate. Richard Nixon's Justice Department, scrambling to find out who was giving out information that would eventually lead to Nixon's resignation, had gone after reporters pretty hard. Given free rein, Nixon no doubt would have liked to have someone pull out Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's fingernails until they gave up Deep Throat. In response to Justice's heavy-handedness, it became more difficult to peek inside a reporter's notebook or put an ear to his or her telephone.

If reporters' sources aren't protected, many bad deeds never see the light of day. Much of the most important information that is gleaned by news gatherers in a free society comes from sources that are, by necessity, substantiated but unnamed. The downside of whistle-blowing dissuades all but the bravest.

People in power want to stay in power. If there is no restraint on that power, almost any enormity is possible. At risk is more than just the press. Anyone running afoul of whoever has unlimited powers can be squashed like a bug. Just ask the Tea Party members who found themselves under the IRS' hobnailed boot. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, recently passed by the House but not, for now, by the Senate, would offer more Orwellian opportunities.

If there are no restraints, there is no accountability, no what's the word?

Oh, yes.