Our voice: Obama administration's obsession with leaks ought to worry all Americans

June 2, 2013 

The Obama administration's enthusiasm for trampling on the First Amendment is frightening, but even scarier is the fact that many Americans will view it as the media's problem.

What's at stake is whether the government can control what you read in the newspaper or listen to on the nightly news.

That's a problem for democracy.

If that sounds overblown, consider the fact that the Department of Justice accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of engaging in a criminal conspiracy for asking a government official the wrong questions.

No, charges weren't filed against Rosen, Fox's chief Washington, D.C., correspondent, but the accusation was used to obtain a search warrant that gave government agents virtual carte blanche to spy on the reporter.

Armed with the warrant, FBI investigators tracked Rosen's movements in and out of a government building for clues about who he was meeting and obtained copies of emails from his personal account.

"Never in the history of the Espionage Act has the government accused a reporter of violating the law for urging a source to disclose information," Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said in a statement, Wired magazine reported. "This is a dangerous precedent that threatens to criminalize routine investigative journalism."

News about Rosen's predicament came on the heels of revelations that Attorney General Eric Holder's office circumvented a warrant altogether and secretly seized the two-months of records for 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters and editors.

The government is trying to find out who leaked information to the AP about a successful CIA mission in May 2012 to stop terrorists from blowing up a U.S.-bound airliner.

AP President and Chief Executive Gary Pruitt recently told staff the records obtained by the government included "thousands and thousands" of calls in and out of the news organization.

Are mainstream journalists in danger of criminal charges for pursuing stories the government would rather keep secret?

Probably not anytime soon, despite the allegations levied against Rosen. Once the warrant was obtained, the Department of Justice backed off from the criminal conspiracy claim.

But according to Pruitt, AP reporters are already finding it more difficult to get government officials to talk because of fears they'll be targeted for investigation.

That's not paranoia. The Obama administration has filed an six criminal cases against whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act.

These aren't traitors leaking information to foreign agents but whistleblowers attempting to bring government waste, fraud and abuse to light.

Certainly, the government has a legitimate interest in keeping some information secret, a fact that responsible journalists recognize. The AP, for instance, did not report on the CIA-thwarted terrorist plot out of national security concerns until sources indicated the Obama administration was going to announce it publicly.

But the government's efforts to control the flow of information go far beyond national security interests and tread into despot territory. The chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers is working.

We're nowhere near the government-controlled news media that exists under totalitarian regimes like Iran or Cuba.

But the Obama administration's actions take us a step closer. That's scary for every American, not just journalists.

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