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EDITORIAL: Sgt. Schultz at the White House

More dissembling in a remarkable week of scandals

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One-time journalist and presidential press secretary Jay Carney is channelling his inner Sgt. Schultz, a favorite of "Hogan's Heroes." He "knows nothing, absolutely nothing" about the Department of Justice snooping on the communication habits of 20 reporters and editors at the Associated Press.

Over the course of two months last year, federal agents secretly went through the records of who has been calling whom at the news cooperative, whether on business phones or personal cellphones. Casting such a wide net surely exposed the confidential sources used for many important political stories. Justice officials insist they're only interested in finding out who leaked details of a sensitive U.S. intelligence operation in Yemen last year.

Usually Justice notifies targets of such investigations before telephone records are seized. Here, the AP only learned about the department's extraordinary operation last Friday. At a press conference Tuesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who recused himself from the investigation as it began — said the AP story at the center of the inquiry is "a very, very serious leak."

That may be true, but since the Watergate era the Justice Department has been under a mandate to try every other means of finding a leaker before it subpoenas a journalist's notes and records. Given the broad nature of the surveillance methods, it's obvious that Justice doesn't care about the chilling implications of its clumsy encroachment on the freedom of the press, as set out in the First Amendment.

Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of the Associated Press, sent a protest letter to Mr. Holder calling the seizure a "massive and unprecedented intrusion." Executive editor Kathleen Carroll told MSNBC that the AP was "distressed," as well it should be.

Perhaps this will be the wake-up call, in a week of wake-up calls, that finally breaks into the beauty sleep of the editors and reporters who haven't been paying attention to the pattern of abuse at the Justice Department. The department has swept under the rug (or the bus, or out the door) questions about the New Black Panther Party's voter intimidation, selling guns to Mexican drug cartels and the vendetta against Tea Party groups.

This abuse hits journalists close to home, so at the Tuesday press briefing Mr. Carney took body slams from one reporter after another about the contradiction between Sen. Obama's campaign for a federal press "shield law" in 2007, and President Obama's scuttling of a shield law in 2009. Such a shield would require a judge to determine that the public interest compelling disclosure is more important than the public interest in knowing what the government is up to. If the Yemen leak is half as serious as Mr. Holder says it was, it would have been easy to obtain a warrant, though a judge might have narrowed the scope of the warrant significantly.

Mr. Carney's insistence that the White House didn't know what was going on at the Associated Press, or with the IRS audits of conservative political groups suggests that Mr. Obama's second term is already spinning out of control. Congress will have to take charge, adding another scandal to its rapidly growing to-do list. Mr. Obama may have to give up his reputation for "cool" and "detached" and become a leader. Someone has to be in charge at the White House. That's not a job for Sgt. Schultz. The man in charge must be the president.

The Washington Times

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