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AP Scandal: The Chilling Effect It Will Have on Journalists Who Were Already Working in Chilly Environment

In continuing coverage and discussion of the Justice Department’s seizure of AP records and the implications this has on freedom of the press, I went on “The Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA on Friday.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy advisor in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, and Jordan Bloom, associated editor of The American Conservative, were also on the program during the segment. [Listen to the discussion here. Conversation begins at the 32:00 mark.]

Steiner said, “We’re talking about going after the press, going after America’s right to know. This is nothing that anybody at the AP that exposed anything in Yemen that was not about to become public knowledge or interfere with our operations. We’re talking about someone trying to do investigative reporting to find out what’s going on. That’s what’s so frightening.”

The point was made by Rottman that this is not just about protecting the press but rather protecting the First Amendment. “It’s about us and it’s about our ability to know what the government is doing. And that’s especially important in national security cases where the government has vast authority to keep what it’s doing secret.”

He described the chilling effect the seizure could have on reporting:

…Reporters are going to be wary of giving sources assurances of confidentiality because they know they can’t keep that promise because the government is going to break it. Sources are going to be wary of even taking phone calls from the press because they know that if they even get the phone call it’s quite possible they’ll show up on the phone records that are seized by the Department of Justice in a leak investigation. Reporters are not going to be able to rely on telephones to do their jobs…

Reporters may have to use “burners”—throwaway telephones when communicating with sources—just like drug dealers.

“This is actually sort of a problem with the classification as a whole. Leaks are vilified by folks in Congress and the [Obama] administration,” Bloom added. “But, when it comes down to it, there’s really no incentive for the administration to classify information and so all kinds of stuff that really shouldn’t be classified and is absolutely in the public interest gets classified. So, these leaks are a part of the news media trying to do it’s job and fill its function in our democracy and under our Constitution in the face of this broken classification system. ”

I made several points based off what I have written here at Firedoglake. Most importantly, I had an opportunity to address how presenting the decision to seize AP records as part of trying to maintain a “balance” between national security and press freedom serves those in power, especially since it gives them a way to excuse what would otherwise be considered abuses of authority. [Again, to hear the discussion, go here. Begins at 32:00 mark.]


Head of the House Intelligence Committee and former FBI agent, Republican Representative Mike Rogers, has criticized the seizure of the AP records. He said on Bloomberg Television, “It doesn’t appear to me to be appropriate.”

“It seems like it’s a year into the investigation, and they cast a very large dragnet, which tells me that they probably don’t know the answers quite yet,” Rogers added. “Normally, in an investigation like this, if you’re going to do something that’s that sensitive, you would have a very clear thing that you’re trying to determine.”

In June, Rogers was part of the GOP push for a special counsel to investigate leaks. He declared then, “It’s pretty hard not to call it treason when someone is leaking this type of information. I don’t know for what gain, but when it causes this much damage to our ability to continue to do what we do, including putting lives at risk, pretty dangerous stuff.”

Now, he may not support inappropriate dragnet surveillance, but, with a background with the FBI, that is doubtful. It is politically opportunistic for him to give tepid criticism of Obama, as if he did not fuel the political climate that ultimately drove the White House to give the Justice Department the green light to pursue leaks investigations.


Another quick note: the environment was already chilly for journalists prior to this news around the Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson recently said in a speech given to journalists at the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in June 2012:

The chilling effect of leaks prosecutions threatens to rob the public of vital information. Sources fear legal retribution for simply talking to reporters. Anyone examining the case of Thomas Drake, a whistleblower who was prosecuted, and what his family went through during his ultimately botched prosecution would think twice before ever talking to a reporter. Reporters fear being subpoenaed in these cases and possibly prosecuted themselves. Several reporters who have covered national security in Washington for decades tell me that the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge. One Times reporter [says] the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting.

This act by the Justice Department means it will get worse for journalists, which should alarm all Americans.


On Sunday at 5 pm EST, I will hosting an FDL Book Salon chat with James Goodale, former counsel for the New York Times, who argued the Pentagon Papers case. We’ll be talking about his book, Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles.

Goodale recently appeared on “Democracy Now!” Watch his interview and then join the discussion tomorrow, as now more than ever we should be contemplating and discussing issues around freedom of the press.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."