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“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” Thomas Jefferson

Someone in the Obama administration doesn’t understand the concept of a free press. Unfortunately, the people involved in that misunderstanding work in the Justice Department, and are positioned to wreak maximum havoc on the First Amendment.

While Attorney General Eric Holder says he played no direct role in the ransacking of telephone records of the Associated Press, he is accountable, nonetheless. So, ultimately, is President Obama.

The Justice Department revealed on Friday that it obtained two months of telephone records of Associated Press journalists, apparently as part of an investigation into a leak of classified information about a failed al-Qaida plot last year. That may have been the official purpose, but the glaring subtext was to intimidate both the press and those who speak confidentially to reporters.

In response, AP President Gary B. Pruitt called the actions a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news gathering. It is that and more.

The Justice Department swept up information from individual reporters and an editor, targeting their cell phones, office phones and home phones. It also vacuumed up information from general office numbers for the AP in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn., as well as the main number for AP reporters who cover Congress. As Pruitt noted, the scavenger hunt could potentially compromise confidential sources across all AP reporting and disclose information about the AP’s activities that the government “has no conceivable right to know.”

Here is how a government secrecy expert described the assault on the AP to the Washington Post: “This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”

Floyd Abrams, a prominent and respected First Amendment attorney, told the New York Times that the norm has been for the government to seek information from press sources and, if it was declined, to litigate the matter. “The notion of avoiding any First Amendment resolution by the courts by going right to the telephone company with no notice to the press organization is outrageous,” he said.

There is, of course, an inherent tension between government and news agencies. Government likes to keep secrets; reporters like to ferret them out. Why? Because of what Jefferson said.

But, as Abrams noted, if the government believes an employee has broken the law in revealing classified information, it has many options short of a broad-based subpoena that aims for the very heart of the First Amendment. Someone in the Justice Department is making insupportable decisions that shred press freedom and cast the Obama administration in a bad light.

Indeed, the administration can’t seem to get out of its own way lately, with the IRS apparently targeting conservative groups – a violation of law – and now taking aim at the press – a violation of the Constitution.

Obama risks watching his second term collapse over the coming weeks if he doesn’t quickly rein in the people making these decisions, regardless of how high in the administration those decisions are being made. He needs to act. And an apology wouldn’t hurt, either.