Erosion of press freedom

Hell hath no fury like a journalist snooped upon. Thankfully, it’s a public-minded kind of fury, in a case that throws light on the erosion of privacy and freedom of the press.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Justice Department had snared phone records from AP bureaus in New York, Hartford and Washington. The records are part of an ongoing criminal investigation into leaks that informed a 2012 AP story on the CIA’s successful operation to thwart an al Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S.-bound jetliner.

The breadth of the records seized is just one troublesome component.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” AP Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said in a letter posted on its website.

The investigation also telegraphs the perils of a leak-obsessed administration. Nixonian paranoia is, well, just that. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia issued an underwhelming statement that it’s always “careful and deliberative” when it comes to freedom of the press. The administration might consult Seattle attorney Egil “Bud” Krogh, the former head of the Nixon White House plumbers (the crew that plugged press leaks), for a tutorial on right action and what happens when hubris swells into overreach, or worse.

“I worry that this appears to be an intrusion on the freedom of the press protected by the Constitution,” said 1st District Rep. Suzan DelBene, a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. “These are very serious actions taken by DOJ that could have broader First Amendment implications and we must make sure that government strikes the right balance between ensuring the free flow of information through the press and the fair enforcement of our laws.”

One remedy is an overdue update of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 to prevent warrantless access to private emails and other electronic communications. DelBene, along with California Rep. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, is co-sponsoring legislation to align the old law with the 21st Century reality of Facebook and instant messaging.

On Wednesday, during Judiciary Committee questioning by DelBene and others, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the need for reform. “The more general notion of having a warrant to obtain the content of communications from a service provider is something that we support.” Good. An email must receive the same privacy protection as a letter (however much we prefer the printed word.)

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