ON his first full day in office, President Obama declared “a new era of openness,” supposedly easing access to federal records and lifting the pall of secrecy that hovered over the George W. Bush White House.
By some measures, Obama has been the worst modern president for press freedom. His administration has filed an unprecedented six criminal cases against whistle-blowers, accusing leakers of espionage when, as in the case of Thomas Drake, they were intent on exposing government waste.
The recent seizure of records for 20 phone lines for Associated Press reporters and editors further tarnishes this record. This is a breathtaking intrusion into the work of investigative journalism. Without a warrant, the Justice Department seized two months worth of phone records, including personal cellphones. AP was denied a chance to fight it in court.
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The last time a journalist’s phone records were seized without warrant was 2001, according to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. Such intrusions do violence to investigative journalism, especially in the complex world of national-security reporting. Who will call a reporter with a sensitive tip if a warrantless DOJ subpoena lurks in the background?
Tension is inherent between journalists covering national security and the government’s duty to protect. That balance has required discretion by journalists — the AP held its story on the failed al-Qaida plot for five days, until the CIA said there was no security threat — and restraint by the executive branch.
The AP phone scandal suggests the balance has tipped badly against the First Amendment.
At the request of a chastened White House, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is drafting a national reporter shield law. A good shield law, such as one passed in Washington state in 2007, would vigorously protect journalists from having to reveal sources or information and put the burden on the government to find information with other means.
Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell recognize the need for a shield law, and should resist attempts to water down the bill. Respecting the First Amendment requires more than empty words.