Holder doesn’t deserve it. His Justice Department is crossing a constitutional line in ways no previous administration has. In spying on reporters and news organizations – even threatening to charge them as accessories to a crime for doing the job that the Constitution envisions – he has taken the inherent conflict between government and press to a level that threatens the ability of journalists to keep Americans informed about what government is doing in their name.
At least twice in recent weeks the Justice Department has acknowledged an assault on press freedom, though it didn’t characterize its maneuvers that way. First, the department revealed that it had 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. Plainly, though, the effort was also meant to intimidate the press and confidential sources.
In its investigation, the Justice Department swept up information from individual reporters and an editor, targeting their cell phones, office phones and home phones. It also gathered information from general office numbers for three AP offices and the main number for AP reporters who cover Congress.
Only days later, the Justice Department acknowledged investigating Fox News reporter James Rosen, and even naming him a co-conspirator, accusing him of “employing flattery” and using other tactics to solicit information from a State Department adviser. Rosen has not been charged with any crime, but the Justice Department obtained search warrants for some private emails, tracked his comings and goings from the State Department and claimed that was reason to believe he had violated the law.
These hamfisted attempts at intimidation do not befit the top law enforcement officer in the world’s pre-eminent democracy. His job is to uphold laws and the Constitution. Instead, he is subverting the First Amendment in an effort to crack down on leaks by government employees to reporters.
Sometimes, journalists learn things that could cause legitimate national problems, if revealed. In those cases, news organizations typically listen to the concerns of government officials. That was the case with the government’s snooping on the Associated Press.
The AP’s May 7, 2012, story disclosed details of a successful CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an airliner bomb plot. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt noted that the AP delayed publication of that story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. “We respected that, we acted responsibly, we held the story,” Pruitt told CBS News.
More often, though, journalists learn things that presidents and other politicians don’t want constituents to know. Without confidential informants, the Watergate scandal might never have been exposed. The Pentagon Papers and the truths about the Vietnam War might never have been revealed. From village halls to Congress, confidential sources help news organizations keep citizens informed.
That’s what Holder is attempting to squelch. He told Congress that the Justice Department has not prosecuted any reporters for doing their jobs and won’t as long as he is attorney general. Perhaps not, but he is working overtime to intimidate reporters – no easy task, as recent stories about government spying on telephone and Internet companies show. Still, he has crossed a line that makes him unfit for office. He needs to resign.
In the meantime, Issa and his Republican amen corner, desperate for some whiff of scandal to pin on President Obama, should give it a rest. Their clownish behavior is not only unsuitable to serious governance, but it makes Holder look like the victim. He isn’t. Americans are.