Obama versus the First Amendment

    George Orwell and Joseph “Catch-22” Heller, famed chroniclers of government illogic, would surely have been fascinated by the Obama administration’s insipid crackdown on press freedom. But since they’re not here to analyze and ridicule, I’ll take a shot at it.

    Here’s the gist, as of today: Obama, who as a candidate promised “the most transparent administration in history,” presides over a Justice Department that secretly seized two months of records from 20 phones at the Associated Press, violating decades-old guidelines that news outlets be notified in advance. The department also monitored the emails and movements of a Fox News reporter who was merely trying to do his job, and secretly justified those actions by stating in an affadavit that the reporter was a potential criminal co-conspirator. In both case, the administration claims that national security was at stake, but it has yet to substantiate the claim.

    After taking a lot of heat, Obama finally said eight days ago that he’s “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable” (as opposed to 15 days ago, when he voiced “no apologies” for the Justice Department incursions). In response to the heat, he has ordered his attorney general, Eric Holder, to conduct a “review” Department policies – which is a tad weird, given the fact that it was Holder who personally authorized the targeting of that Fox News reporter.

    And when Obama claims that he’s troubled by a chill of investigative journalism, I am reminded of Orwell, who once said that “political language” is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

    Which bring us to this week’s Catch-22:

    Holder has sought to meet with major news organizations, to discuss how the Department in the future might more effectively balance press liberty and national security – but the big catch is, he wants to do it “off the record,” which means that his comments couldn’t be publicized. In other words, after assaulting AP and Fox News in the name of secrecy, now he wants to discuss the issue of openness…in secret.

    Clearly, the Obama administration has a tin ear for irony.

    This explains why AP, Fox News, CNN, CBS News, NBC News, the McClatchy chain, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters refused to meet with him yesterday, and have vowed not to meet with him today. In the words of Ron Fournier, at the nonpartisan National Journal, an off-the-record proviso “puts a reporter in the position of a priest: Keeping the government’s secrets….This is important stuff. The debate over balancing liberty and security needs to involve the public, and not be limited to a handful of government officials and the media elite.” (Some press outlets met with Holder anyway.)

    “National security” elasticity

    Granted, there are surely instances when leaks to the press might imperil civilian lives at home, and military personnel abroad. That concern is understandable today, given our endless twilight war. But, all too often over the years, presidents have lost perspective and invoked “national security” with egregious elasticity, to hunt down government dissidents and chill reporters. As Carl Bernstein said earlier this month, “National security is always the false claim of administrations trying to hide information that people ought to know.”

    The targeting of Fox News reporter James Rosen is a classic case. The Obama administration snooped Rosen’s private emails and phone calls, and tracked his whereabouts, because (supposedly) it had “probable cause” to believe that Rosen was a criminal co-conspirator who was imperiling America becase of his contacts with State Department analyst Stephen Jin-Woo Kim.

    Kim is an expert on North Korea. Here’s Rosen’s key email message to Kim, the message that got the government all hot and bothered: “I want to report authoritatively, and ahead of my competitors, on new initiatives or shifts in U.S. policy, events on the ground (in North Korea), what intelligence is picking up, etc….Let’s break some news, and expose muddle-headed policy when we see it, or force the administration’s hand to go in the right direction, if possible.”

    Aggressive reporters have said stuff like that since time immemorial; there’s no evidence in that email of any conspiracy to imperil national security. Rosen was working a source, trying to do his job, hoping to break news about “new initiatives and shifts in U.S. policy” – yet, in response, the Obama team sought to criminalize him as an exstential theat to the nation.

    It’s like what Joseph Heller wrote (in his twisty ironic style) about his anti-hero, Yossarian: “Morale was deteriorating, and it was all Yossarian’s fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”

    The Rosen case isn’t necessarily Nixonian in terms of depravity – after the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press in 1971, Nixon set up a “plumbers unit” of lowlife burglars to find the leaker – but such comparisons are beside the point. The point is, Obama promised high standards. Instead, we’re getting Washington business as usual – an administration like so many others, trying to control the story and curb the free flow of info. What a pity for Obama if this becomes part of his legacy.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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