By Christopher B. Daly
It’s tempting to say “Better late than never” about the Obama administration’s recent flurry of decisions to stop trying to intimidate the news media. But they really should have known better and never embarked in the first place on the most sustained campaign to chill press freedom. Stopping an idiotic, wrong, and unconstitutional policy is not exactly cause for celebration. As Obama himself has described his policy in other arenas, “Don’t do stupid shit.”
In the case against a former CIA officer accused of leaking national security secrets to a reporter, the government decided to go after the reporter. That reporter, James Risen of the New York Times, has been living for years under the threat of being sent to jail unless he would swear under oath who his sources were. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Justice Dept prosecutors would not demand in court that Risen name his source(s). Just this week, the defense in that case said the same. So, Risen is off the hook.
What Holder did not say is important too: he did not say he was sorry to James Risen (which he should do). Nor did he say that he would institute a policy under which no reporter who commits no other crime will be threatened with jail just for protecting the identity of confidential sources. This is still a matter of prosecutorial discretion.
Here is the Washington Post version.
In another matter involving the relationship between government and the news media, Holder announced just yesterday that he is putting in place a new policy under which he will forbid the government from secretly tapping journalists’ telephones or hacking their emails.
Here is the AP version. Here is the WaPo. Here are the AG’s new guidelines. (It takes more than two pages of single-spaced gobbledeegook to fall short of what the founders said in 11 words: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”)
These are the right things to do, as far as they go. But they don’t go nearly far enough. The fact is, presidents and attorneys general come and go; prosecutors and NSA agents follow policy or they don’t. What we need to ensure that policies endure past different administrations and have real consequences is a “shield law” passed by Congress that protects journalists nationwide. What we really need is for the Supreme Court to read the First Amendment properly and decide, once and for all, that press freedom extends to reporting.