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Obama’s war on press freedom

Recent Department of Justice (DOJ) actions against two media organizations show that the Obama administration is willing to trample over press freedom and the First Amendment rights of journalists. These are serious attacks on the media to investigate freely, and for us to read what we want about the government. They go well beyond where previous administrations dared to tread, including the much-criticized Bush White House. James Goodale, a First Amendment lawyer who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, says  “President Obama will surely pass President Nixon as the worst president ever on issues of national security and press freedom.”

First, it was revealed that the DOJ filed a secret subpoena and obtained two months of phone records – including home phones and cell phones - from Associated Press (AP) reporters and editors without notifying them.  The DOJ was apparently seeking to identify the person who leaked information about a terror plot in Yemen that was foiled by the CIA.

Next, on Monday we learned that DOJ investigated James Rosen, Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent, for a 2009 article about North Korea. The government was using Rosen to build a case against State Department contractor Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who allegedly told Rosen that North Korea might respond to UN sanctions with more nuclear tests. The DOJ tracked Rosen’s movements and contacts, and obtained a warrant to search his personal email account, as well as accessing records of calls to and from a phone number at Fox News Channel.  Most chillingly, in the request to a federal judge for permission to access Mr. Rosen’s emails, the DOJ argued that “There is probable cause to believe that the Reporter [Rosen] has committed or is committing a violation” of the Espionage Act of 1917, “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.”  Although Rosen was not charged, the implication was that he was acting as a criminal “co-conspirator” of a spy ring – for simply asking questions and writing about what he learned.

The background to the stories is that the DOJ  has pursued leak investigations more aggressively than others before it. To give an idea of how remarkable the Obama administration’s campaign against leaks has been: between the Espionage Act’s introduction in 1917 and the end of the George W. Bush administration, the Act had been invoked only three times, while the Obama administration has already indicted six officials under the Act.

There are many problems with the administration’s heavy-handed approach. It is sweeping in scope, a “fishing expedition” as they say, that can reveal private information about hundreds if not thousands of people. Team Obama is clearly trying to scare any would-be whistle-blowers. Lucy Dalglish, dean of journalism school at the University of Maryland, says: “The message is loud and clear that if you work for the federal government and talk to a reporter that we will find you.” It is hard to imagine doing investigative reporting about government itself without having any sources. So much for the Transparency President.

Worse still are the criminal implications of the Fox News case. As Goodale says, “Obama wants to make it a crime for a reporter to talk to a leaker.” Following the administration’s logic, we would never have had the Pentagon Papers, nor the celebrated “All the President’s Men” - those would have been criminal acts.

The Obama administration’s moves against journalists are in fact consistent with its consistently terrible record on civil liberties. If you had been listening only to partisan liberals, this might come as a surprise – after all, during last year’s election campaign, all you heard was how wonderful Obama was. During the Bush years, there were endlessly noisy complaints about W’s use of 9/11 to curtail rights. But the past five years have revealed Obama as even more willing to forgo freedom in the name of national security – and it goes largely unchallenged.

And so, true to form, some of Obama’s liberal defenders have risen to defend the indefensible actions against the AP and Fox News. As Glenn Greenwald noted, Josh Marshall of TPM published an anonymous letter depicting  Obama’s DOJ as the victim, while Think Progress “offered a benign and generous interpretation” of the government’s actions.

But most Democratic Party supporters in the mainstream media, including  the New York Times, have come out in opposition to the Obama administration’s anti-press moves. These organizations clearly have a sense of self-preservation kicking in. Yet they are late to the party, and their defense of Obama to date does not make them the most credible of critics now. Indeed, only last week the liberal cry was that the AP story, along with scandals regarding the IRS and Benghazi, were inventions of Republicans that did not deserve to be taken seriously.

I agree with Times' lead editorial today, where it wrote that the Obama administration is “threatening the fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news”. Obama's actions will have a chilling effect on reporters, which in turn will have negative implications for democracy. But the most compelling and effective way to oppose this onslaught on the media is to recognize it comes from a President and party that is suspicious of freedom generally. Whether it's defending national security, stopping “gun violence” or protecting the vulnerable from “hate speech” - they are all excuses given by the ruling Democrats to justify placing restrictions on our liberties.

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