Seizing records weakens freedom

Our government did what?

The incredulous question surfaced last week after news broke about the Justice Department seizing two months’ worth of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press.

For those old enough to recall the early 1970s, it brought back memories of President Richard Nixon and the efforts during his administration to find sources of information leaked to news reporters.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama declared before a group of reporters that free speech and an independent press are “essential pillars of our democracy.”

That’s not the picture emerging from what has been described as an unusual fishing expedition by our government.

The Justice Department, claiming to have complied with national security laws, secretly collected two months of cell and home telephone records for AP reporters and an editor, for AP office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford and for the main AP number for reporters who cover Congress.

The activity was part of an investigation the department initiated into unauthorized release of information used in a May 7, 2012, story the AP wrote about a CIA operation to stop an airliner bomb in Yemen. That was the story the AP held several days after the government claimed it would interfere with intelligence gathering and distributed only after receiving assurances that any national security risk had passed.

Despite that cooperation, the Justice Department apparently couldn’t keep its nose out of the news-gathering business and started a hunt that ran roughshod over the First Amendment’s freedom-of-the-press guarantee.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overboard collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive of the worldwide wire service wrote in a letter to the Justice Department. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news-gathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s news-gathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit association dedicated to providing free legal assistance to journalists since 1970, has called on the Justice Department to return the phone records, explain how such an egregious overreach could happen and outline what will be done to mitigate the damage.

It’s also using the case to illustrate the need for a federal press shield law, requiring the government to show cause before compelling disclosure of information from or about a news media organization. If that’s the remedy, the lawmakers need to write a strong version to keep our First Amendment rights intact.

When Obama ran for his first term, voters chanted for change that he pledged to deliver. But no one should be chanting for changes that challenge our nation’s First Amendment rights.