It’s not new or surprising or important that the relationship between the press and the Obama administration hasn’t always been cordial. Like it or not, a lack of cordiality is no justification for the U.S. Department of Justice to hack the phone records of the Associated Press or any other news organization or journalist.
In a stunning revelation, the DOJ admitted to collecting records from 20 phones in the Capitol office used by the AP and others. In addition, it hacked the personal cell phones of individual reporters.
DOJ claimed the actions were justified in its pursuit of information leaks that may have involved official secrets.
Whatever the claim, the hacking clearly compromises the relationships and confidentiality necessary for journalists to do their jobs of watchdogging public institutions and finding out what government officials might or might not want citizens to know.
All week, the Obama White House has had to contend with constant unpleasant questioning about the DOJ’s egregious overreach. Imagine how much better the week could have been if the administration had someone in charge of rooting out bad ideas—apparently no small task. What if someone’s job had been—just before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder or someone else at DOJ decided to throw the switch on the Associated Press wiretaps—to yell “Stop,” and then ask, “Is this really the smart thing to do?”
The U.S. Constitution simply does not make an exception to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press guarantee if a government official decides it’s a good idea to tap reporters’ cell phones.
Anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to use electronic spy toys in order to chill and control the press needs to be working somewhere else besides the highest ranks of government.
Holder says he did not know about the record collecting. He also says the president did not know.
If what Holder told Congress about his part in this affair is true, he must either resign or be fired. He is either the incompetent head of a staff gone rogue or believes he can run roughshod over constitutional rights and standard procedures and then claim incompetence.
Furthermore, even if President Obama did not know about the hacking, he still has a problem. He is a constitutional scholar, after all. Long ago, he should have been certain that those around him, including his senior staff, would recognize that this was a bad idea.
Obama needs to know that his senior staff is serving him well, because if they are not, he cannot serve the electorate well either.