Keeping Americans in the dark
Most people pay taxes, so news the Internal Revenue Service is harassing people for political reasons is interesting.
Most people are outraged and worried about terrorism, so attention is paid to questions about the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last fall.
But who cares whether the government is snooping around the email messages and phone records of journalists?
You should – because reporters aren’t the real targets.
No, what’s at stake here is whether you can learn what’s really going on in the federal government. If you believe officials are in the habit of telling you the truth and nothing but the truth, I have some swamp land in Florida that may interest you as an investment.
One knee-jerk reaction to reports the Department of Justice seized AP phone records, including some from reporters’ personal phones, along with Fox News journalists’ email messages is that if we journalists have nothing to hide, there’s no problem.
But we do have something to hide: Our sources.
Years ago, as a young reporter, I was “cut off” by a certain government official. I had persisted in writing stories he didn’t want the public to know about, so he ordered his subordinates not to talk to me. A couple of days after he spread that word, my phone rang. It was one of the officials’ subordinates, who wondered if I’d like to know the real story behind such-and-such.
I wrote about it, which sent the official in question right through the ceiling. But it was information the public deserved to have.
Now, imagine the situation had the official in question seized my phone records – without me having a day in court to protest. He’d have learned my source’s identity and fired him. No one else in that arm of government would ever have dared to tip me off again. And you, the public, would have been kept in the dark on how millions of dollars in your money was being spent.
Now, think about the message actions against the AP and Fox News have sent: If you work in the federal government, don’t you dare spill any secrets to reporters. If you do, we have ways – unconstitutional, but who cares? – of finding out who you are.
As often as not, the leaks government officials are determined to plug have little or nothing to do with real national security. Fox reporter James Rosen’s source, a State Department adviser named Stephen Kim, gave him a little insight into what U.S. intelligence analysts thought North Korea would do in response to efforts to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs. That’s far from information that, if revealed, would harm U.S. security.
In 2006, under the administration of former President George W. Bush, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales threatened to prosecute the New York Times for reporting secrets. The allegedly sensitive information in question? Simply that the government was tapping some Americans’ phones without warrants.
Gonzales wisely backed off, possibly after someone pointed out how bad he’d look trying to keep that secret.
Virtually every president, including Republicans and Democrats, has engaged in action intended to intimidate the press and scare the dickens out of those who might feed us information. Most reporters don’t get intimidated easily. But many of our sources, without the protection the courts traditionally have granted to the press, are very right to worry.
President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder know that. They’ve already accomplished part of what they set out to do. Reportedly, some Washington journalists’ sources already have clammed up.
That’s all Obama and Holder want – to convince leakers techniques such as secret email taps and phone records will be used to catch and punish them.
And that’s why all this is more important than the IRS and Benghazi scandals. Because if Obama and Holder succeed, countless other scandals never will be revealed.
That ought to upset you. Government always is secretive. This government is more ruthless than most in keeping information from you.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org