The CEO of the AP, Gary Pruitt, has much the better of the public debate when he argues that the search of some 20 separate phone lines used by over 100 journalists is, to use his charitable word, "overbroad" -- particularly when the question is whether an AP reporter got information that the CIA had foiled an al Qaeda terrorist plot to blow up a U.S. plane on the way to the United States. As the AP now reports, it "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." If the CIA or the DOJ had concerns about the source of a leak, the first step would be to approach the AP directly to find ways in which to limit its inquiry so as not to trench on genuine news-gathering behavior. The applicable rules for news organizations require that subpoenas be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period."
But as caution was cast to the winds, the DOJ inquiry went from zero to 100 miles per hour, without paying any heed to the countervailing interests that lay in its path. This sets out another gnawing question: Just how high up the chain did the authorization for the investigation go? Did Obama know of the decision before it was made, or sometime afterward? If not, what were the deliberative processes that were used to make it? And what should be done with the information collected? Pruitt wants it all to be returned and destroyed, but so long as there is a congressional investigation in the wings, that information is relevant to the question of administrative abuse -- even if it not relevant to the question of what, if anything, happened in Yemen in the spring of 2012. And to make matters still worse, someone, anyone, can still ask the question of whether this investigation was a unique event, or whether the future will reveal that the Justice Department, the State Department, and the CIA engaged in an unrelated problematic investigation of some different issue, with or without presidential involvement.
But, for the moment, Obama does not have any easy out: He pays a high political price if he distances himself from Holder or calls the DOJ investigation outrageous. This is not the Tea Party. To avoid the blowback, press secretary Jay Carney has tried to turn the discussion back to economic issues. But that will not carry the day. Washington loves a scandal, even one so clearly egregious that the Democrats will be reluctant to mount a principled defense of the Obama administration. The situation is only worse because of the secrecy that surrounds all key decisions coming out of the inner group in the White House, so much so that no one quite knows why the administration took so long to release this story or to explain the role that the attorney general had in overseeing events or in approving the subpoenas.
For the president and his aides, the first item on the agenda is damage control. The administration is likely in full-blown (but secret) polling mode, seeing how high the tides of dissent and resentment will rise, and who they will envelop. My guess is that Holder is history. Right now, it looks as if Obama will survive, though probably as a lame duck, just four months into his new term in office. It is a sad fall for an administration that has always prided itself as having escaped the muck of ordinary politics. But not this time. We are past the point where presidential protestations that the administration is innocent on all charges will be treated as evidence that it is covering up its own misdeeds. Cheap talk is dangerous in all professions, even in politics. The real tragedy is that the president and his attorney general believed overmuch in their own exalted rhetoric; the nation, and the world, is all the poorer because of their excesses. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16.18 should now be required reading in Washington.