As a journalist, I am not supposed to admit this, but: I sympathize with the Obama administration's frustration over national security leaks. After a spate of leaks last year -- notably, The Associated Press' reporting that national security officials foiled an underwear bomb 2.0 attempt last May -- Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein joined Republicans to denounce the Beltway's proclivity for leaking classified information. "This has to stop," quoth DiFi. "When people say they don't want to work with the United States because they can't trust us to keep a secret, that's serious."
Feinstein was concerned about possible harm to a reputed double agent who got ahold of the new underwear bomb or to his family. I presume that when Attorney General Eric Holder made the assertion during a news conference Tuesday that his Department of Justice subpoenaed phone records of AP reporters because Washington had to respond to a serious risk, he was talking about the same thing.
Problem: Holder has not exhibited stellar judgment in this area. When he worked in the Clinton Justice Department, Holder advised the president on pardons and commutations. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 convicted Puerto Rican independence terrorists despite the department's earlier opposition. During his 2009 confirmation hearing, Holder refused to explain. Holder has a history of putting politics before national security.
Holder also is the swell who issued a "neutral-leaning to positive" recommendation that gave Clinton cover to pardon gazillionaire fugitive Marc Rich.
Problem: There's a protocol for these situations, which Holder's Justice Department ignored in the AP case. The government is supposed to give news organizations a heads-up so they can appeal and show cause why the government should not obtain proprietary information that threatens to reveal the identities of whistle-blowers. Didn't happen.
That's a nasty reward for the AP, which accommodated the administration by delaying publication of the underwear bomb story from May 2 to May 7, when official concerns had been allayed. At the time, the AP reported that the White House wanted to make an official announcement -- which makes you wonder why Holder has suggested that secrecy about this episode was so dire.
"Nobody is more against leaks of national security information than I am, and I've seen lots of attempts to track down leakers in the past," former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told me. "That said, I am surprised that they found it necessary or wise to do this massive sweep of AP phone records. Usually, if you can't find the leaker by other means, other administrations have chosen to not take this draconian step."
For some reason, the Justice Department obtained records for phones used by an estimated 100 journalists. It was a heavy-handed play that was about as smart as stepping on a hornets nest.
Savvy thugs know not to shoot cops, and savvy politicians know not to snoop on journalists. It's bad for business. And though the Washington press corps might come across as self-important, reporters are right to point out that the AP probe is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and other sources.
That's why Obama, as a senator during George W. Bush's presidency, supported media shield laws. And that's probably why, as president, he undermined said legislation when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.