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EDITORIAL: Lap dogs on the growl

Barack Obama gets a warning from some old friends

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Lap dogs will snap at an ankle, but they rarely bite. Nevertheless, President Obama is running out of friends. His steamrolling and "no negotiations" negotiating style offended Republicans first, but now some of his most ardent supporters are entertaining second thoughts. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which works to protect reporters from harm in distant places such as Colombia and Egypt, released a report Thursday suggesting the Obama administration has adopted speech-chilling tactics more appropriate to a Third World nation.

Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post who has never been called a conservative, wrote in the report that Mr. Obama "has fallen short of his promise" to create "a transparent administration." That's quite an understatement. The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, enacted in 1917, than all former presidents together since the statute was enacted in the frenzied run-up to World War I.

The Justice Department has dispatched lawyers to harass reporters at Fox News, The Associated Press and The New York Times. Telephone logs have been seized, emails confiscated and reporters accused of crimes and threatened with prosecution. And not just reporters. Some government employees who will no longer talk about unconstitutional or illegal acts they see for fear of being accused of "leaking." This administration shows no mercy to anyone it thinks is leaking. The result is that many inside government are terrified to speak to reporters. This keeps the press in the dark, which means keeping Americans in the dark, about the aims, tactics and methods of government. Federal officials have isolated themselves from the people they work for.

Mr. Obama tries to blame everything that goes wrong on his watch on the man who preceded him. "The buck" that Harry Truman said stopped at his desk in the Oval Office never gets to the White House now. But George W. isn't taking the fall this time. Mr. Downie notes that while the Bush White House would express anger at certain stories it regarded as "negative," especially about the Iraq War, "journalists and news executives, including myself, were still able to engage knowledgeable officials at the highest levels of the administration in productive dialogue." Not now, not with this White House.

The Founders gave freedom of the press and freedom of speech pride of place in the Bill of Rights because these guarantees are crucial to the checks and balances that make the American experiment work. The public needs to know the good, the bad and the ugly to make the informed choices and decisions that often irk politicians. Mr. Obama was spoiled by the fawning, unquestioning and adoring press through his first term.

That's changing. In an op-ed column earlier this year, James C. Goodale, the former vice chairman of The New York Times, wrote that "President Obama will surely pass President Richard Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom." It was a stunning admission, a fire bell in the president's night, a warning that if he can't reform himself and his administration, he'll need to grow a thicker skin, and a smaller dog.

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