Outrageous: Justice department crosses the line

In its zeal to discover the identity of an anonymous source that informed The Associated Press, for a May 7, 2012 article, of a foiled terror plot, the United States Department of Justice stepped way over the line.

The justice department’s decision to subpoena a wide array of AP phone records from April and May of 2012 to discern the anonymous source’s identity has sparked outrage from news organizations across the country – as well it should.

The subpoenas encompassed three separate AP offices – all in different states – AP switchboards, an AP fax line and personal phone numbers of reporters and an editor involved in the article, all in an effort to find the leak.

But according to a recent article written by AP reporter Mark Sherman, the “AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security.”

That means the government knew of the article, and the AP respected worries that national security could be compromised by its publication by waiting until given the all-clear.

The AP played by the rules. It seems the government could use a refresher course.

As the news media continues to lurch into the 21st century, trying to form business models that will keep them profitable, the American people have begun to see the news as a right.

So ubiquitous is the media that people believe they should have access to news at no cost, one of many issues that is shuttering the doors of news organizations as they struggle to stay profitable in the Internet age.

Fewer and fewer resources are available these days to journalists looking to embark on long, time-consuming and expensive pieces.

Taking away the capability to use anonymous sources – which costs a journalist nothing – will be the death-knell of investigative reporting, the heart and soul of a free press.

How can any source, anonymous or not, feel comfortable blowing the whistle on the misuse of government power if they are silenced by that very government for fear of being found out?

The subpoenas issued on the AP’s phone records were sweeping and far outreached the scope of what the government needed in its search for the leak. And it’s already causing mistrust between journalists and their sources, according to AP CEO Gary Pruitt.

It’s a dangerous road we’re walking when the federal government can have that kind of access to the dealings of the press in its news-gathering efforts.

And it’s clear government officials knew the backlash would be strong, since the subpoenas were sent directly to the AP’s phone company, Verizon, while, according to Sherman’s article, a one-sentence letter alerting the AP of the subpoenas was sent to the organization.

The government should be made to return the phone records to the AP and to destroy any copies it may have made, and hopefully it will learn that attempts to silence the press in this country will be met with a strong outcry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jackie Stark is a Chocolay Township resident and a staff reporter at The Mining Journal. Her column appears bi-weekly. She can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net