But fishing expeditions, it turns out, are how the Justice Department does a lot of its investigative work in the post-9/11 world, and despite President Obama’s vows to protect press freedom here and push for it abroad, journalists are getting caught in the administration’s dragnet.
“In the 30 years since the [Justice] Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for news gathering materials was deployed by the department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which represents more than 40 major news organizations, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Expressing outrage over the heavy-handed tactics of the Justice Department, Bruce Brown, the committee’s executive director, and Gregg Leslie, its legal defense director, said the Obama administration is redefining the country’s long-standing constitutional commitment to freedom of the press.
The Justice Department sought the AP’s phone records in an investigation into who leaked information that embarrassed the administration last year, exposing that it had been working to thwart a terrorist attack at a time when officials said they had no specific knowledge of any plots.
The AP isn’t the only press organization that has come under target.
On Monday news reports said the Justice Department seized phone records and emails sent to a private account of Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen, in an investigation into a 2009 story about U.N. sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear program.
In court filings, the department even said Mr. Rosen may have aided and abetted in a crime by trying to pry the information, which was classified, from his source.
“We are outraged to learn today that James Rosen was named a criminal co-conspirator for simply doing his job as a reporter,” said Michael Clemente, Fox News’ executive vice president of news. “In fact, it is downright chilling. We will unequivocally defend his right to operate as a member of what up until now has always been a free press.”
The affidavit filed by FBI agent Reginald Reyes said there was “probable cause” to believe that Mr. Rosen, who was identified only as “the reporter,” has violated a provision in U.S. law prohibiting unauthorized disclosure of defense information. Mr. Reyes then labeled Mr. Rosen a possible “co-conspirator” in seeking access to two days’ worth of emails.
The government is prosecuting a State Department adviser Stephen Kim, a North Korea analyst, for revealing secrets to the news organization. He is awaiting trial. No charges have been filed against Mr. Rosen.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, quickly condemned the action taken to determine Mr. Rosen’s sources, and blamed the White House for creating a culture where it can occur.
“We must insist that federal agents not use legitimate investigations as an excuse to harass journalists they deem unfriendly to the president or the administration,” he said in a statement. “We shouldn’t even have to ask if our government would do such a thing, but unfortunately, as the unfolding IRS scandal shows, this White House has created a culture where we do.”
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the government’s conduct has had a chilling effect on news-gathering, with sources unwilling to contact reporters for fear of legal exposure.