- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Across the table at one of Washington’s classic power restaurants, my source sat smiling. We hadn’t seen each other for more than six years. After the usual opening small talk and pleasantries, I posed the question I had come to dinner to ask.

“I’m curious. Why did you go cold on me all these years?” I inquired.

“You were too hot,” the source shot back wryly, playing off my own words. “Honestly, we were concerned that after your phone records and mail were seized that you were still being monitored.”

The source paused.

“It’s too bad. There were a lot of great stories I wanted to give you.”

That conversation from late 2007 still resonates in my memory, a vivid reminder of what can happen when the government exercises its awesome powers to try to secretly unmask reporters’ confidential sources.

More than a decade before the Justice Department secretly collected the phone records of four of my former colleagues at The Associated Press, I was one of the first reporters to have his home phone records and personal mail gathered by the Justice Department and the FBI. It was a futile effort to find the sources of stories I had written.

In the summer of 2001, the Bush Justice Department authorized a subpoena for my home phone records in an effort to locate confidential sources who had helped me put together a series of stories explaining what prosecutors knew about suspected wrongdoing between then-Sen. Robert G. Torricelli and a major political donor before the case was dismissed.

At the time, I was the AP’s lead investigative reporter and an assistant chief of its Washington bureau. The U.S. attorney’s manual’s rules required the Justice Department to notify AP in advance of taking a reporter’s phone records and to try to negotiate a solution.

That did not happen. The Justice Department decided instead to subpoena and review my records and then notify me afterward. I got the notification in the mail in late August 2001, months after prosecutors had gone through my home phone records.

The news media were outraged by the intrusion. For days after the revelation, there was a media campaign to demand answers and to end such tactics, which fly in the face of the press freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

But the story quickly faded on Sept. 11, 2001, when the country’s attention was riveted to the arrival of large-scale international terrorism on U.S. shores. Gone was the momentum to pressure the government to answer some important questions about its assault on the First Amendment.

I went back to reporting immediately, trying to tell the stories of what the government knew about threats of terrorist attacks in the days and weeks before Sept. 11. I managed to break some big stories, the Phoenix memo warning of Arab pilots training at U.S. flight schools among them.

But I noticed a marked difference in the way my longtime sources treated me. Most refused to talk on the phone for any length of time, and they hardly ever emailed me anymore.

Anything sensitive had to be done by meeting in person. One source went as far as to require me to sit on a bench in a city park, where I could retrieve leaked documents hidden inside a folded newspaper. It was painfully obvious that the government’s intrusion had affected my ability to report hidden truths to the American people.

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