Obama’s New Attack on Freedom of the Press

by Barry Sheppard

May 31, 2013

A new scandal has erupted involving the use of the “War on Terror” to crack down on the democratic rights of U.S. citizens. The Justice Department has acknowledged secretly seizing all the work, home and cell phone records of almost 100 reporters and editors at The Associated Press (AP).

The records seized were from April and May of 2012. The sweep was in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, 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.”

It was also in violation of the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press.

AP’s CEO Greg Pruitt protested: “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. 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.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the Justice Department, went public to defend his unconsitutional search and seizure, claiming it was done to discover who in the government leaked a story about a CIA operation in Yemen to the AP.

Holder, a former Wall Street lawyer, said: “This was a very serious – a very serious leak, and a very, very serious leak….it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk.”

Holder claims the CIA operation prevented the bombing of a U.S. airliner. There is no way to know if this is true or not. The U.S. government is a “very serious” liar, “and a very, very serious” liar. In any case, the leak to the AP in no way compromised the alleged operation, according to Holder’s own account.

But the seizure of the AP phone records compromised all of the AP’s sources concerning all its reporting on all of its stories, not just this one.

What this is about is trying to terrorize people in the government or military from “leaking” information to the press the government doesn’t want the public to see. When the government doesn’t want its war crimes, attacks on democratic rights, fostering of military coups and dictatorships, etc. etc. known, it labels information about them “classified,” so it is a crime to disclose such information.

The courageous people who “leak” such information to the press anyway, are known as “whistleblowers” to the public, but as criminals to the government.

Eric Holder defends the seizure of hundreds of AP phone records.

At a press conference concerning this attack on the freedom of the press of the AP, a reporter confronted White House spokesman Jay Carney: “This administration has prosecuted twice as many leakers as every previous administration combined. How does that reflect balance?”

Carney, flustered, said that the President supported “freedom of the press,” but had to “balance” that against “we cannot allow classified information to be – that can do harm to our national security” to be leaked.

The reporter countered, “But the record of the last four years does not suggest balance.”

This reporter or another asked, “As a principle, does the President approve of the idea of prosecutors going through the personal records and phone records of journalists and their editors?”

Carney: “I can tell you that the President believes that the press, as a rule, needs to be – to have an unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism, and –“

Reporter: “How can it be unfettered if you’re worried about having your phone records –“

Carney responds with more bluster and fluster about “national security.”

Former New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges said about the AP case, “It’s part of a pattern. That’s what’s so frightening. It’s a pattern we have seen … to essentially silence whistleblowers within the government.”

As a former Times investigative reporter, Hedges personally knows many other such reporters. “If you talk to investigative journalists in this country,” Hedges said, “who must investigate the inner workings of government, no one will talk [to them], even on background. People [in government] are terrified. And, of course … the seizure of two months of AP records is … about going after that person or those people who leaked this story and shutting them down. And this canard that it endangered American life … there is no evidence of this.”

Hedges referred to the Espionage Act, passed in 1917, which is still being used to go after whistle blowers. In 2007 a CIA agent, John Kiriakou, “leaked” to the press that the agency was using torture, the first such information from within the CIA. He was threatened with the Espionage Act, which stipulates harsh penalties.

Finally, Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2010 to violating a different law in a plea deal. That law was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows for warrantless wiretapping, among other things. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for the crime of revealing CIA torture.

The judge opined that she was sorry she was constrained by the plea deal to impose such a lenient sentence.

The Espionage Act was first passed in 1917 to quell left-wing opposition to the First World War. The Socialist Party and the IWW were its targets. In 1918, Eugene Debs, the SP and IWW leader, was tried and convicted under the act for his public and vociferous opposition to the war. He ran for President as a Socialist in 1920 from his prison cell.

During the Vietnam War, the Espionage Act was used against Daniel Ellsberg, whose crime was leaking the secret Pentagon Papers which told the truth about the U.S. role in Vietnam from 1945 to the U.S. invasion.

In the context of the times, with the massive antiwar movement and radicalization of “The Sixties,” Ellsberg was acquitted.

Hedges notes that the Espionage Act was used three times from 1917 up to 2009, when the Obama administration took office. It was used three more times under his watch to suppress the truth.

As part of the pattern of the suppression of whistleblowers, Hedges referred to the cases of Bradley Manning Julius Assange.

Manning is currently facing courts-martial by the Army. His crime? Exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange is guilty of publishing Manning’s exposure of war crimes as well as publishing U.S. diplomatic cables and other material embarrassing to the U.S. government.

Assange is currently holed up in Ecuador’s British Embassy, having been given political asylum by that country. At Washington’s bidding, the British government will not allow him passage to Ecuador.

The Obama administration wants to get its hands on Assange to try him under the Espionage Act, which can result in the death penalty.

The need to crush the whistleblowers is one point that Obama and the Republicans have whole-hearted agreement on.

Barry Sheppard is a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area. He has written a two-volume political biography about his time as a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He writes a weekly letter from the U.S. for the Australian Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alternative magazine.