- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The revelation that the U.S. government used secret subpoenas to pry into Associated Press reporters’ phone records triggered two contradictory reactions in the political world.

“What the subpoenas did was remind the left that the right has reasons to fear big government and remind the right and left of the objectives they share politically,” said Joe Miller, the Alaska conservative who was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate last year.

For conservatives, the phone-records story fortified their fear that, despite the best of intentions, government by its nature will tend to erode the freedom of the individual — and almost always in the name of protecting the collective good.

That conservative fear is one that liberals tend to regard as verging on paranoia.

Yet this latest Justice Department action — an action that for many on the right confirms long-held concerns about big government — is also, paradoxically, bringing conservatives and liberals together. Both ideologies, after all, share an interest in defending the freedom of the individual.

“Americans on the right have always had a fear of big government, and now what the government is doing is striking fear in the hearts of the left as well,” said Mr. Miller.

SEE ALSO: White House supports media shield law amid AP records scandal

Both sides think the Justice Department spread a huge net over hundreds of fish in the hope of catching the right one — in this case the leaker of a May 2012 story that the CIA had foiled a terrorist airline bomb plot.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which conservatives tend to regard as ultra-liberal politically, immediately denounced the U.S. Justice Department’s secret subpoenas of AP phone records as an “unacceptable abuse of power” and said Attorney General Eric Holder should “explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again.”

Conservatives said it was the Obama administration going to the same intrusive excesses in the name of fighting terrorism as the previous Bush administration, which pushed through Congress the Patriot Act that many GOP conservatives and other civil liberties champions opposed.

Kayne Robinson, former Iowa Republican Party chairman, said what the Obama administration did with the AP is part and parcel of the government’s “war on terror” abuses.

“Liberals, libertarians and conservatives like me have been critical of — and in fact opposed — to the post-9/11 Patriot Act and its intrusive measures,” Mr. Robinson said. “Federal police used terrorism as an excuse to demand and get every intrusive police measure on their list of desires, all the while assuring us that if we just trust them, all will be administered fairly and reasonably. Liberals suspended disbelief when their hero, Barack Obama, was elected. Now surprise, the liberals find their ox gored, too.”

Civil libertarians on the right and left have argued that it was precisely to prevent such widespread searching and fishing expeditions that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution demanded “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

SEE ALSO: GOP leaders hit Obama for lack of accountability amid scandals

In that sense, the Fourth Amendment was an anti-fishing expedition amendment.

Supporters of the Justice Department’s search of reporters’ phone records argue that it was done to protect the CIA’s ability to foil future plots.

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole told the AP the subpoenas “were limited in both time and scope.”

Attorney Gen. Eric Holder also on Tuesday defended the subpoenas as consistent with the law and Constitution.

“Yeah, I heard that,” said Mr. Robinson, a former Des Moines assistant police chief. “It doesn’t make a bit of difference, because the authorities always have an excuse. The point is fishing expeditions are wrong. If there is a reasonable suspect to a crime, that’s one thing. General searches to find a suspect is the problem — because mostly the ‘person and property’ of uninvolved innocent persons will be violated.”

The phone records revelations coincided with what conservatives and liberals regard as another government intrusion on personal liberty.

Two ACLU officials wrote in a CNN opinion column that the “extraordinary revelation … that the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party groups for more aggressive enforcement highlights exactly why caution is needed in any response to the much-vilified Supreme Court decision in “Citizens vs. FEC” Supreme Court ruling.

“It also shows how all Americans, from the most liberal to the most conservative, should closely guard their First Amendment rights, and why giving the government too much power to limit political speech will inevitably result in selective enforcement against unpopular groups,” the ACLU officials said.

Those skeptical of government power argue that once people let their government on the slope, it’s hard to stop it.

“Why stop with AP?” said Mr. Robinson. “Maybe a stringer got the info, maybe a relative of an employee, maybe a friendly reporter from another news organization, maybe, maybe. maybe. The king can rationalize endlessly and all persons supplying any information adverse to the king are in jeopardy.”

“There will always be a dramatic exaggerated excuse by the king to invade a civil right.

“Just like banning guns or producing lists of gun owners to save the children,” he said.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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