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On press freedoms, Obama races Nixon to bottom

Posted: May 22, 2013 1:51 p.m.
Updated: May 24, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Despite what you may hear from some of his more fevered critics, President Barack Obama’s recent scandal-quakes don’t appear to fall anywhere near the level of Richard Nixon’s Watergate disaster. But by another Nixonian yardstick, trying to put a muzzle on press freedoms, Team Obama appears to have surged into the lead.

I’m talking about the Obama Justice Department’s pursuit of leakers, the same mission that gave Nixon’s infamous team of Watergate “plumbers” their nickname.

Plugging up leaks has returned as the alleged mission of the current Justice Department’s secret snooping into phone records of journalists at Fox News and the Associated Press.

The Washington Post reported Monday that federal investigators secretly obtained Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent James Rosen’s personal emails and phone records. They also tracked his visits to the State Department. The probe followed a Rosen story about a CIA analysis of North Korea’s possible response to sanctions. The leak was traced back to State Department worker Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a North Korea specialist who now faces charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, a law that was intended to punish those who gave aid to our enemies.

A week earlier, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department secretly had obtained more than two months of phone records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones, earlier this year.

So much for the promise on President Obama’s transition website to strengthen “whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers.” Since then, his administration has been more likely than any of its predecessors to try to silence and prosecute federal workers.

The Espionage Act was used only three times to bring cases against government officials accused of leaking classified information to the media before President Obama took office. It has since been used six times. So far.

No one should be surprised, says attorney James Goodale, since Obama has relentlessly pursued leakers ever since he became president. “He is fast becoming,” Goodale writes in the Daily Beast website, “the worst national security press president ever, and it may not get any better.”

Worse than Nixon? Goodale ought to know. He was the general counsel for the New York Times in its 1971 Pentagon Papers case in which the Nixon administration prosecuted the Times under the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court fortunately sided with the Times.

Forty-two years later, Goodale has written a new book, “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles,” just in time for a new wave of leak-plugging questions in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Full disclosure: Goodale and I also happen to be members of the board of directors of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The board has sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, joining other press freedom organizations in voicing our objections to “unnecessary government intrusion” in the work of journalists.

Future efforts to obtain phone records or other information essential to newsgathering, the letter asks, “should be communicated to the news organization in advance so that the action can be challenged in court as justice demands.”

That’s been standard practice in the past under Justice Department guidelines. But something has changed in this administration. Goodale suspects it had something to do with the bracing briefings Obama received shortly after his election in 2008, according to Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s War.” “Also,” Goodale said, “to gain the respect of his colleagues, it helps to be tough on national security.”

Besides, it’s probably not going to hurt Obama much politically. Hating leaks and the media are a bipartisan pastime for politicians, especially presidents. The AP seizures, for example, came after outraged Republican lawmakers demanded action to find the leakers of a foiled plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen.

Republicans suspected the leaks may have come from somewhere close to the Oval Office, since it revealed a counterterrorism success that the Obama administration was not at all unhappy to let the public know about. That would not be surprising. But sometimes the public needs to know what the government is not happy to let you know about.

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