David Adler: Probe of media's phone records is affront to freedom

May 16, 2013 

President Obama's second-term agenda may never take flight unless he moves swiftly to correct his administration's missteps. Like scandals that have hobbled his predecessors, the errors in judgment that have surrounded Benghazi, the apparent aim of some zealots within the IRS to target the tea party, and the Department of Justice's dragnet of AP reporters' phone calls, did not have their origin in the White House. That's an old and familiar tale. Just ask Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The unwritten chapter in the Obama presidency will have much to do with what he does now.

The explanation of the tragedy in Benghazi was mishandled from the start, and recent revelations have laid bare the poverty of the administration's thought process. The IRS scandal, which appears to have involved the use of government resources to target and, perhaps, harass ideological groups hostile to the Obama administration, has emitted a stench that has drawn political memories back to the Nixon administration. But any parallels stop there. There are no echoes of Watergate to be heard.

Unlike the Obama White House, the Nixon White House actually hatched a plan to use the IRS to pursue political enemies. It cannot be stressed enough that there is no evidence linking President Obama to the outrageous targeting of the tea party.

Indeed, he has rightly condemned the actions and has said that those who violated the principle of a neutral standard in reviewing claims for a tax-exempt status will be held fully accountable. Attorney General Eric Holder has declared his intention to launch a criminal investigation.

The mismanagement of Benghazi and the seemingly partisan IRS pursuit of the tea party did not originate in the White House. It may not be possible to say the same for the Department of Justice's dragnet of phone calls made by and to reporters for The Associated Press as part of a plan to identify the source of leaks for stories written by the AP about the prevention of a Yemeni terrorist plot to blow up an airliner in May 2012. Holder authorized the subpoena of incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell lines for the six journalists involved in writing the national security story that the administration did not want them to report.

Holder may well have acted with the approval, if not the encouragement, of President Obama. Since his early days in the White House, Obama has been aggressive, some say, obsessed with plugging leaks to reporters writing on foreign policy and national security matters.

Tracking leaks has been widely viewed as a matter of Oval Office policy which, Holder, as attorney general, not to mention an Obama insider, would be expected to enforce. On this score, Holder has been vigilant. Indeed, the DOJ has indicted six leakers, twice as many as all presidential administrations combined.

The dragnet has been justly condemned by press freedom organizations and journalists. The sheer scope of the fishing expedition is unprecedented and an affront to the First Amendment. The Obama administration did not inform the AP until two months after it had secured the records. That meant the administration could track all of the reporting, on all of the stories in which the six AP reporters were engaged.

Some may dismiss the AP and the Fourth Estate as whiners, with a reminder that national security matters ought, as the Obama administration has asserted, enjoy an "exemption" from the usual means and ends of reporting.

But that position ignores the critical linkage between the role of the press and the promotion of our national security. It is mindless to assert that in a constitutional democracy the president should be given a free hand, spared transparency and accountability. That is a road to executive autocracy and disaster.

Since our nation's founding, the press has covered every major military battle, and its reports have informed Americans' judgment about matters of war and national security. It is precisely in times of war and other international crises that the American citizenry needs to be informed so that it can perform its role as a critical, supervisory body, empowered to offer its views on the conduct of foreign relations. The government is not, and never has been, exempt from scrutiny when it comes to the management of our foreign policy.

Obama's position jeopardizes the gathering of national security information by any reporter. That policy is both extreme and unnecessary.

Historically, the American press has cooperated with the government in the publication of stories related to matters of national security. It has often delayed publication; on various occasions it has agreed not to publish. Freedom of the Press is as critical as any other liberty in the maintenance of the republic. It deserves respect and appreciation, by all citizens, including the president.

Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, presidential power and the Bill of Rights.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service