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May 26, 2013

Snooping threat to free press

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.

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