Establishing a beachhead against a free press

If we engage the hard work of source-based information gathering we risk what is difficult to prove, a government that monitors, targets and threatens with indictment the members of the press corps

Establishing a beachhead against a free press

The film The Bourne Ultimatum contained a chilling scene that provided a prescient warning for professional journalists. We are engulfed in the current news of the Department of Justice’s interference in the professional rights of a free press.

In the aforementioned, Simon Ross, a correspondent for a British newspaper attracts the attention of the CIA. After meeting a confidential source to discuss Jason Bourne, he mentions ‘Operation Blackbriar’ to his editor. The transmission is picked up by a listening post and flagged. The chase is on.

Agent Pamela Landy performs a reverse order of operations to locate the agent who is leaking information to the correspondent. She rightly surmises that the agency employees with cell phones off at the same time the reporter’s phone is off provide for the highest index of suspicion. Both the reporter and his contact are summarily executed due to the nature of the leak. Art as real life. Except that in the case of the Associated Press, a bag of popcorn and a drink do not accompany the unfolding plot line.

The Constitution has been breached. It matters not that The New York Times prints a piece, “Stop the Leaks” with a strong appeal from three men who have in the past, represented the interests of the government. The ranking system of Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General is pretty darn impressive. But to proclaim in a three-tenor manner, “Prosecutors were right to obtain phone records of A P journalists” does not bring the house down like Domingo, Carreras, and Pavarotti. It is a strong statement in favour of unconstitutional behaviour. Their reasoning creates a dangerous beachhead from which additional unconstitutional acts of greater scope can be launched against a free press.

What does the Constitution state? The first Amendment is written with unequivocal clarity: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The man tasked with guardianship of the US constitution committed a crime against the constitution. The attorney general placed himself above the law. But luckily, the constitution boils down to the greater strength of ‘We the People’. Don’t tread on us!

The use of a secretive subpoena process denied a news organisation the right to mount a defence within the courts. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has also extensively tracked James Rosen. He is a respected Washington journalist and television correspondent for Fox News. They did not blink when seizing Rosen’s telephone records. They took it a step further. Rosen’s parents’ phone records were also seized.

The most alarming bit of news is how the DOJ worked as a co-conspirator with Google in Gmail banditry to obtain Rosen’s IP addresses and metadata stored in his personal account. Attorney General Eric Holder is a signatory for the search warrant, which was used to circumvent constitutional due process. He admits that he really does not know how many other journalists have suffered the same fate. Journalists with source confidentiality? Let that thought sink in the next time you access your accounts and imagine your privacy vigorously defended by Google. The issue of source confidentiality troubles me immensely. As an ethical journalist I can in all honesty state that relationships are not cultivated to manipulate as sources. But on more than one occasion, vibrant friendships have evolved to the point that a confidence is shared. The need of the moment is to then categorise such friends as confidential sources. A level of intellectual trust has produced ‘news’ as information-sharing moves back and forth. An oath then passes my lips to maintain confidentiality. I verbally state their anonymity is protected. This is how a free press works. This is the hardware of the Constitution. The federal branch has used technological software to spy on a free press. The older Carnivore and the newer Narus come to mind as broad intel sifting devices. What the DOJ did was targeted surveillance of reporters doing their job.

Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of the Associated Press has called the actions of the DoJ unconstitutional. A direct request to the telephone company for access to multiple office, home and cell phones of reporters, circumvented due process. The Obama administration is sending a clear message to the press: if we engage the hard work of source-based information gathering we risk what is difficult to prove, a government that monitors, targets and threatens with indictment the members of the press corps.

Anthony Lewis, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize has this to say regarding the need for a free press to function with a measure of courage: “The American press has been given extraordinary freedom by the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment. In return, it owes society courage. It must resist the lure of obeisance to power. Its reporters and editors must remain freebooters — vagabonds and outlaws, as Bernard Levin put it. Only then can they perform the press’s patriotic function of holding government to account” (Lewis, Anthony, Freedom For The Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment pp. 155, 156).

We must demand government accountability for the breach of the constitution to identify a leak. Stewardship of the constitution is a primary duty of government.

Journalists are ordinary people with extraordinary passion. That passion is extended through the gift of writing. This requires information-gathering and fact verification, which comes from our fellow man. We gather facts, gain perspective, and formulate an opinion. It is tough work. The goal is the maintenance of a free society.

I am an a priori journalist along the lines of Kant. Light is a disinfectant. Let the light of journalism disinfect the dark corners of our federal branch. Unfortunately, the POTUS has asked Attorney General Holder to investigate his own actions. Karma!


The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at