Journalists gasp and growl whenever prosecutors issue lawful subpoenas ordering them to divulge their confidential sources or to turn over potential evidence, such as notes, video outtakes or other records. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, journalists and their lawyers chant. Those chants were heard this week, as it was revealed that Department of Justice prosecutors had seized two months’ worth of records from 20 office, home and cell phone lines used by Associated Press journalists in their investigation into the Yemen underwear-bomber leaks.
First Amendment radicals — I count myself among them — resist any and all such intrusions: You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams speaks for most journalists when he denounces the “breathtaking scope” of the AP subpoenas. But the press’s reflexive protests can prevent it from seeing the story in full, which I think is the case in the current leaks investigation.
(Disclosure: About 50 news organizations, including my employer, Reuters, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder objecting to the subpoenas.)
The Obama administration has already used the Espionage Act to prosecute more government officials for leaking than all of his predecessors put together, but we shouldn’t automatically lump its pursuit of the underwear-bomb leaker in with those cases. Perhaps this investigation is chasing an extra-extraordinary leak, and the underwear-bomber leak is but one of the drops.
The AP story that has so infuriated the government described the breakup of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot to place an underwear bomber on board a U.S.-bound airliner. Published on the afternoon of May 7, 2012, the story patted itself on the back for having heeded the White House and CIA requests to not publish the previous week, when the AP first learned of the operation. The AP states in the article that it published only after being told by “officials” that the original “concerns were allayed.” In a chronology published in today’s Washington Post, we’re told that the CIA was no longer resisting publication of the AP story on the day it hit the wire (Monday) and that the White House was planning to “announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.”