The AP reported Monday that the Justice Department seized records that "listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers" of AP reporters using more than 20 separate telephone lines in April and May of last year.
Justice did not tell AP why it sought these records. But Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement on Tuesday that seemed to confirm that the department did it as part of an investigation into who leaked to AP some details of a 2012 CIA operation that targeted an al-Qaida plot to blow up an airliner.
Even that, however, would not explain why Justice indiscriminately targeted so many phones used by so many reporters.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," AP President Gary Pruitt said in a letter to Holder. "These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."
Justice, which is supposed to protect the rights of Americans, trampled on them here.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," says the First Amendment.
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated," says the Fourth Amendment, "and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
When and how did the administration establish there was probable cause to seize the records of more than 20 different work and personal phone numbers used by AP reporters? How can such a bold assault on the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches not also be an assault on the First Amendment right to freedom of the press?
Freedom of the press is and ought to be a check on government power. Good reporters keep people in government honest by exposing things that people in government are doing that they don't want the public to know about. If the government can covertly seize the phone records of one of the nation's largest and most influential news organizations, how can that not have an intimidating effect on those honest people still in government who want to tell the truth to the taxpayers who pay their salaries by delivering facts to diligent reporters?
Or was that the very purpose of the Justice Department's move on The Associated Press? People who paid close attention to this administration knew from the outset it did not respect freedom of the press.
When the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission first came before the Supreme Court in 2009, then-Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart argued that if a corporation published a book in an election year that included an argument for voting against a particular candidate, "we could prohibit the publication of the book using corporate treasury funds."
When the administration went back to argue the case in the court a second time, then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan said the administration had now decided it could not ban "full-length books."
"What about a pamphlet?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked his future colleague.
"I think a pamphlet would be different," said Kagan.
Then, Roberts stood on the side of liberty. "The government urges us in this case to uphold a direct prohibition on political speech," he wrote in a concurring opinion. "It asks us to embrace a theory of the First Amendment that would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern."
Days before the AP reported the Justice Department had seized its phone records, Lois Lerner, head of the Internal Revenue Services Exempt Organizations division, admitted that the IRS had specifically targeted for heightened scrutiny groups that used the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax exempt status.
Tea party groups had publicly complained more than a year earlier about the IRS harassment, and Mark Levin's Landmark Legal Foundation had written to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, asking for an investigation. Lerner's admission only came as TIGTA was preparing to release a report on the matter.
Obama ended last week issuing a proclamation for "National Women's Health Week." Here he took credit for the "preventive services" regulation his administration issued under Obamacare that will force virtually all health care plans to cover sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
He did this even though dozens of Catholic and Evangelical Christian schools, nonprofits and business owners are suing the administration, arguing the regulation forces them to act against their faith and thus violates their right to free exercise of religion.
He did it even though America's Catholic bishops unanimously declared the regulation unjust and illegal -- and many have boldly said they cannot and will not obey it.
Would an administration where the IRS targets tea party groups, and where the Justice Department sweepingly seizes the phone records of The Associated Press, put Catholic bishops in jail for holding true to the ancient and unchangeable teachings of their faith?
Maybe even The Associated Press will now think about pressing that question with our president.