The decision by the Obama administration to pick a fight over phone records with the Associated Press demonstrates how complicated national security investigations can be.
The Obama administration hit the trifecta of scandals (for lack of a better word) last week when raging controversies broke out on the Benghazi terrorist attack in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was murdered, disclosures of top IRS officials targeting perceived foes of the president and the broad subpoena of Associated Press phone records by Justice Department lawyers investigating a national security leak.
There is little doubt about the first two: Obama administration officials clearly misled the public on the specifics of the terrorist attack on a United States diplomatic facility in Benghazi, and the IRS misconduct, possibly criminal, has evoked outrage from both Democrats and Republicans.
The AP phone matter, however, is more complicated. It would appear the Justice Department's decision to subpoena phone records from more than 20 separate phone lines at the AP and not to inform AP of its action, as past practice had dictated, was a fishing expedition allowing the government access to much more information about AP's news-gathering operation than the investigation necessitated.
But there is much more to be learned about what occurred here. During a generally combative congressional hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Attorney General Eric Holder, who said he had recused himself from the AP matter, testified that he didn't know a thing about what had happened or why. He didn't feel the need to inform himself before testifying, apparently acting on the theory that asking questions of his subordinates would require passing the answers along to inquiring members of Congress. So there it stands, although President Obama now says he'd support a press shield law to prevent his administration from doing in the future what it did in the past.
But despite questions about tactics, the fact is that the Justice Department is conducting a legitimate investigation into a leak of vital national security information — the purported disclosure of a U.S. mole who had infiltrated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The AP reported about U.S. efforts to foil an airline bomb plot in May 2012. In the process, some have asserted, the report revealed the existence of the mole, thereby ruining his ability to assist British, Saudi Arabian and American national security agencies.
The feds want to identify and prosecute the leaker, so they decided to conduct a fishing expedition of AP phone records to identify the leaker and, perhaps, much more.
This is a dicey business that has many people conflicted. The AP is screaming bloody murder about what it claims is the violation of its right to gather news. Government can investigate itself all it wants, applying whatever scrutiny it needs to potential leakers. But investigating a news agency is altogether different. Why would new sources talk to reporters about sensitive information if they have concerns about the news organization's ability to protect their identities?
It is clear that the Justice Department approach was overly broad and an intentional surprise attack. Whether it produced the information investigators were seeking remains to be disclosed. But investigators clearly stirred up a hornet's nest that has alienated many in the news media and demonstrated once again just how powerful and unnerving a force government can be when it adopts the role of bull elephant and charges in whatever direction it decides.