You have to feel a teeny-tiny bit of sympathy for the Obama administration, which buckled to congressional pressure last year by agreeing to investigate a series of leaked news stories about clandestine victories in the war on terror, and is now being bludgeoned by many of those same Republicans for trying to get to the bottom of one of those leaks by gaining access to the phone records of investigative reporters. Would it have been better if the Justice Department waterboarded everyone they suspected of leaking?
On the other hand, what Justice actually did, which was to secretly apply for subpoenas for the phone records of 20 reporters for the Associated Press over a period of almost two months, was probably not a great idea. The normal procedure is to negotiate for access to journalists' records, which prosecutors refused to do out of fear of compromising their investigation. The White House thus managed to simultaneously outrage congressional Republicans and the press, which is not that easy to do. The administration tried to undo the damage by clumsily re-introducing a press shield law that had failed to pass in 2009; the effect was to reinforce the meta-narrative of Obama vs.The Media. But the press, in this case, is just collateral damage; the real story is "Obama in the Grip of Secrecy."
The irony is that, in this case, the leak might well have justified some kind of inquiry even absent the rightwing clamor for it. The AP story, published a year ago, revealed that the CIA had thwarted a bomb plot in Yemen that involved an upgrade of the "underwear" bomb that failed to explode Christmas Day 2009. Subsequent accounts clarified that the plot had been foiled by a sting operation carried out by a Saudi agent. The stories appear to have compromised an irreplaceable undercover operative who had to be whisked out of the region.
One intelligence official I spoke to said that the leak would make it tougher to recruit such operatives in the future (an odd echo of the press claim that turning over records to the government scares away confidential sources). A congressional aide familiar with the intelligence argued that "a leak that compromises an asset doing something as significant as helping prevent a bombing from reaching its intended target is a highly significant leak and ought to be prosecuted." Even the letter that Greg Pruitt, the chairman of the AP, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder objects to an "overbroad" search conducted without prior warning, not to the search itself.
But the Obama administration has made so many wildly exaggerated claims on secrecy issues in the past that the credibility that automatically accrued to a president who once worked as a professor of constitutional law has long since evaporated. It was impossible to suppress a smirk when Holder insisted that the latest set of leaks had "put the American people at risk." Over the last four years, the Obama Justice Department has mounted elaborate investigations under the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute, among others, self-styled whistleblowers who have tried to expose the use of torture by the CIA, or a costly boondoggle at the National Security Agency. The act was written to target individuals who disseminated propaganda or revealed military secrets in order to compromise the American effort in World War I, but none of the alleged acts have seemed to seriously jeopardize national security. Obama, as has been often noted, has used the law to prosecute leaks more often than all of his predecessors combined -- six times as opposed to three. That is not a record to be proud of.