NORMAN — In “All the President’s Men,” reporter Bob Woodward conducts late-night meetings with a source in a parking garage.
That source, Deep Throat (later revealed to be high-ranking FBI official Mark Felt), was worried that he would be exposed as a tipster in the Watergate scandal.
The idea of a clandestine chat in a dark, empty parking garage sounds a bit silly when you stop and think about it. One would suppose the two men could find some quiet, out-of-the way location to meet and still enjoy privacy.
But Felt wasn’t taking any chances. And perhaps he had good reason to be cautious. What’s happening now with the Justice Department and The Associated Press is a lesson in journalistic prudence and the power of government.
As you may know, Justice officials obtained a vast array of AP phone logs, without ever telling the news organization it was gathering the information. While these records did not reveal actual conversations, they show who was talking to who over a period of time.
The reason for the search involves a news leak last year regarding a terrorist case in Yemen, where an unidentified source told The AP about the thwarting of an attack and the infiltration of the al-Qaida organization in that country.
Supposedly, The AP report had the effect of exposing an undercover agent, thus threatening national security. This prompted the Justice Department investigation to identify the source and possibly charge that individual with violating national security laws.
Now, the government may have legitimate concerns about this leak. But what it did with the AP appears to be little more than a fishing expedition — except instead of using a hook, Justice employed dynamite — on the chance something might float to the surface.
This isn’t how law enforcement and criminal investigations are supposed to work in an America with a Bill of Rights. Such matters as probable cause and search warrants come into play. The power of government to gobble up private records and sift through them is supposed to be limited.
Defenders of the Justice action argue that phone records tell very little. But an enterprising and ethically challenged intelligence agent could have a field day with this sort of data. And it may have absolutely nothing to do with national security. Sources contact The AP with all manner of tips and information.
But perhaps they won’t in the future if they worry someone in government is going to be able to track them down and expose them. That’s the real danger of using heavy-handed tactics to scoop up the records of news organizations.
The revelation regarding The AP’s phone records has caused quite a dustup in Washington, with Republicans attacking the Obama administration for what happened. Interestingly, the president turned around and renewed his support for a federal shield law that would help to protect journalists from such government intrusion in their activities.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has reintroduced shield law legislation in Congress. It will be interesting to see if lawmakers who are attacking the administration are willing to back that up with votes to protect the press.
They should. This isn’t about one national security incident. This is about the ability of a free press to do its job and ultimately hold government accountable. If the powers that be can frighten sources into silence, all Americans suffer.
Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.