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Opinion

Protect the watchdog press – from Obama

More than the Benghazi or IRS scandals, Americans should be alarmed about the Obama administration’s investigations of journalists. Attorney General Eric Holder met off-the-record with some media groups (others boycotted). They spoke of the probes' chilling effect on reporters.

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The Supreme Court rejected the government’s efforts to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, which have since become a central symbol of press freedom and transparency. “Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic,” Justice William O. Douglas declared in his concurring opinion. “Open debate and discussions of public issues are vital to our national health.”

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A majority of the court asserted that the government could restrain the disclosure of information – but only if it threatened “direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people,” as Justice Potter Stewart wrote. The publication of the Pentagon Papers did not meet that standard.

Did AP’s bomber-related story meet that standard? There isn’t enough on the public record to know. Clearly, though, some of the Obama administration’s other leak cases haven’t met the test. In 2010, the government indicted National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake after he told a reporter that an NSA surveillance program was a waste of taxpayer dollars. The government eventually dropped charges for a plea deal that largely absolved Mr. Drake of wrongdoing. The federal judge on the case, Richard Bennett, called the drawn-out prosecution of Drake “unconscionable,” and a federal justice official later called it “ill-considered.”

It was reported recently that the government also investigated Fox News journalist James Rosen, who allegedly helped a State Department employee, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, leak classified information about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Agents named Mr. Rosen a “co-conspirator” to obtain a warrant to search his phone records and e-mails to identify Mr. Kim.

In an email to Kim, Rosen wrote: “I want to report authoritatively ... what intelligence is picking up.... Let’s break some news, and expose muddle-headed policy when we see it.” In other words, Rosen was doing his job.

Was the government’s investigation of Rosen's records an example of overreach? Or was government simply following the trail where it led in trying to identify Kim – who has been indicted on counts of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and leaking classified information? It’s too early to tell.

But President Obama seems to have registered media concerns, announcing recently that the Justice Department will review its policies for investigating reporters. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for losing their jobs,” Mr. Obama declared.

That’s true. If people want to know more about Benghazi or the IRS – or anything – they need reporters who investigate government without fear of being investigated themselves. In police states around the world, governments routinely spy on journalists. That’s not the kind of company that America should keep.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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