Steve Chapman
When it comes to prosecutors' investigations of leaks, you can count on journalists to dispense with impartiality and scream bloody murder. Upon learning that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of its reporters, the Associated Press said there could be "no possible justification" for the intrusion. The Newspaper Association of America agreed, "These actions shock the American conscience."

The surprise was to hear Republican members of Congress sounding the same alarms. "If the Obama administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation," thundered a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner -- whose car might just have one of those bumper stickers that say, "I don't believe the liberal media."

You could almost forget that last summer congressional Republicans were accusing the administration of being soft on leakers and demanding a special prosecutor to punish "intolerable" disclosures. Now they fault the Justice Department for going overboard.

Even Democrats are reluctant to defend the phone records grab. But when everyone in Washington agrees on something, some skepticism is in order.

As a rule, investigators should try to avoid getting in the way of journalists doing their jobs. The news media are vital to democracy, and leaks are one way they expose facts relevant to the citizenry. Only a totalitarian system could hope to completely eliminate such disclosures.

But not all leaks are benign. Some are dangerous and criminal. This one involved the CIA foiling of a Yemen-based plot to blow up a commercial aircraft. Attorney General Eric Holder noted he's been a prosecutor since 1976 and said it "is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen. It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole."

Even with a truly harmful leak, the Justice Department has a duty under its own self-imposed guidelines to try every other way to find the leaker -- and to limit its search to facts essential to solving the case. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said it abided by those restrictions. In a letter to AP, he said prosecutors went so far as "conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of documents, before seeking the toll records at issue."

Barack Obama has been more intent on plugging leaks than past presidents, notwithstanding his promises of greater transparency. Critics note that in his first term he prosecuted twice as many leakers as all previous presidents.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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