Jacob Heilbrunn

The AP Scandal Shows That the Obama Administration Is Going Rogue

The Obama administration is mired in a fresh scandal of its own making. The revelation that the Justice Department has been snooping into the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors indicates that the administration's ruthlessness when it comes to trying to protect its reputation and sources knows no bounds. Attorney General Eric Holder, always a poor choice for a cabinet post, should resign. Coupled with the revelation that the IRS has been selectively targeting Tea Party groups and the botched handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack, the administration confronts a second term that appears to be ending even before it has even really begun.

Obama has always prided himself on being squeaky clean when it comes to governing. He campaigned for transparency in government. He said he was against soft money. He said that members of his administration would have to demonstrate the highest ethical standards ever. Well, that was then. He has nominated the tax-dodging billionaire Penny Pritzker, who bankrolled his political ascendancy, to serve as his Commerce secretary. He has hoovered up any and all funds he can attract, infuriating proponents of campaign finance reform. And now his administration, in its mad and obsessive and destructive pursuit to quash any leaks, has besmirched itself by targeting journalists for investigation.

Leaks have always plagued presidents. They are a function of a national security state that has always aspired to total control in the post-World War II era—in 1986, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Don Regan proposed creating a standing cadre of FBI agents to ferret out leaks. But the ability of the state to exercise surveillance over its citizens was always limited. No longer. Technology has marched on. The president who can order an assassination by using drones—and initially claimed that he could target a U.S. citizen in America until Sen. Rand Paul denounced him—is also busily snooping on the media. The Associated Press says that Holder and his minions ran amok: They monitored

incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.

Was Obama aware of this program? Did he order it? Or was it done solely on Holder's initiative? White House press spokesman Jay Carney says it had "no knowledge" of the secret program. If it didn't, maybe the White House should pay more attention to what is going on in the ranks of its administration.

It seems that the investigation of the AP journalists was prompted by the revelation that a U.S. spy inside the ranks of a Yemeni Al Qaeda group had helped to foil an airliner bomb plot. An aggrieved administration went on the offensive to try and discover who leaked the information. Instead, it has only embarrassed itself.

The fixation with leakers is counterproductive. The problem with targeting leakers, of course, is that they often play a valuable role in helping to inform the public about what, exactly, is taking place in the government when it comes to foreign affairs. Sometimes leaks redound to the benefit of an administration or allow it to spin the news. Obama, however, has displayed a kind of compulsive desire to stifle leakers from the outset of his presidency.

The result is what AP chief Gary Pruitt is calling a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into civil liberties and press freedoms. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post, "“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.” It is no small irony that Obama, who declared that he would halt the George W. Bush administration's violations of personal freedoms, has exceeded the mendacity of his predecessors in creating a new star chamber to hunt down his detractors and enemies. Obama isn't protecting American freedoms. He's going rogue. If this keeps up, Obama may accomplish the impossible and create a wave of nostalgia for Mitt Romney.