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Editorial: Overreach

The United States Justice Department’s targeting of the Associated Press can only be described as a bow to those who subscribe to the philosophy that the means justify the ends.

In the Justice Department’s view, the “ends” would be finding out who is responsible for certain leaks of information and putting an end to such a flow of information. In this particular case, that means finding out who provided the news-gathering cooperative classified details about an anti-terror operation in Yemen conducted by the CIA. As part of that story, it was reported a year ago that a foiled plot included a double agent, one who was able to give to U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents details about a new “underwear bomb.”

Conceivably, such information could compromise the agent and result in his or her death.

As part of its investigation, the Justice Department issued blanket subpoenas for two months of records from 20 telephone lines used by AP reporters and editors. Although in this case, federal law enforcement can say they were only seeking information about this particular case, we don’t know what other information now is in the hands of investigators. Intended or not, it has a chilling effect on what people are willing to say to reporters, whether they are whistleblowers or not.

As AP president and chief executive Gary B. Pruitt wrote to Attorney General Eric 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 news-gathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

What’s also alarming here is that the Justice Department is using a very broad brush in defending the choices made. Holder, who recused himself from the case last year after being interviewed by the FBI, defended this move by saying, “this was a very serious leak. It put the American people at risk.”

But with little information to back up that assertion, it’s hard to determine whether the Justice Department acted correctly — even disregarding the fact that it didn’t use normal protocol of informing the news organization of its intent.

Much of this story is about checks and balances. One of the jobs of our government is to protect the American public and its agents abroad.

But it’s the job of the press to keep an eye on government and provide the American public information on its actions and the reasoning behind those acts. And, for the record, The Recorder is a member of the AP.

The decisions here could be seen as being based on paranoia and a zealous approach to secrecy, something that were the trademark of such people as Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney rather than the Obama administration.

Americans deserve a detailed explanation ... sooner, rather than later.

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