If you had to pick one word to describe the Obama administration's scandal-plagued, power-abusing and buck-passing week it would have to be "Nixonian."
The ghost of Tricky Dick seemed to be haunting every headline and press conference as the administration stumbled from Benghazi (not much to see here?) to the IRS (bureaucratic incompetence or enemies list?) to the secret subpoenas by the Justice Department of two months' worth of Associated Press phone records (what the what?).
The Justice Department, in what AP President Gary Pruitt called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" on press freedom, reportedly seized the records of calls made on phone lines at the New York, Washington and Hartford bureaus, AP's phone in the House of Representatives, and the personal phones of at least two AP journalists.
This excessive dragnet reportedly was conducted to ensnare the leaker behind a May 2012 story uncovering a CIA operation in Yemen that involved an Al Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane. AP reports that it held the story for a week in response to claims by the administration it could interfere with ongoing operations but before the Obama administration itself was about to announce the foiled attack.
As Glenn Greenwald explains in The Guardian:
"What makes the DOJ's actions so stunning here is its breadth. It's the opposite of a narrowly tailored and limited scope. It's a massive, sweeping, boundless invasion which enables the U.S. government to learn the identity of every person whom multiple AP journalists and editors have called for a two-month period."
Almost every major journalist group and press watchdog organization has denounced the DOJ's actions. A May 14 letter signed by more than 50 major news and press freedom organizations (including by my group, Free Press) said: "In the 30 years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review."
The probe appears to be unprecedented in its scale and scope. But as Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation notes: "In five years, the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined, and virtually all these prosecutions have engulfed journalists one way or another."
The initial reaction of the Obama administration was evasion from Attorney General Eric Holder and squirming by White House Spokesman Jay Carney -- who became flustered when the briefing-room lapdogs started to snarl.
Pro-Obama messengers were instructed to act concerned the reporters might have tipped off the terrorists and -- if that didn't work -- to shout "Valerie Plame" a lot. But that mostly served as a reminder of how much the most transparent administration ever™ was outdoing another famous Dick: Dick Cheney.
By Wednesday, even as Holder admitted he couldn't recall how many times Justice had gone after the phone records of journalists, the Obama administration declared its renewed support for a federal shield law for journalists. The apparent message: Save us from ourselves!
A federal shield law is a worthy idea. But it might not have stopped the Justice Department in the AP case because their request for records didn't go to the journalists but to the phone companies. And those companies -- which happen to rely on the federal government for all kinds of special handouts and deregulatory favors -- have eagerly complied with requests to spy on their customers.
Other key questions around a shield law include:
How big will the loopholes be for matters of "national security"?
Will it protect all journalists or just those deemed to be credentialed or professional?
Will it do anything to curb the administration's extreme pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers?
And can it pass when so many journalists are afraid to engage in political activity?
I ask the last question because it's not just the Obama administration that needs to make a serious change. Press freedom will continue to erode unless we can build broad support across and beyond the Fourth Estate. This citizen's sign-on letter might be a start.
But to actually succeed in undoing the damage done by this administration and its predecessors, we'll need leading news and journalism organizations to reach out to and engage other allies they sometimes shun -- the media reformers, the civil libertarians, the bloggers, the unions, and especially their own readers and viewers -- to challenge the executive branch and secure true press freedom in the digital age.
That will take more than sternly worded letters; it might take actual protests and direct action.
It will certainly require broad public education efforts on press freedom, mobilizing millions of average citizens, and support not just for prominent reporters at places like the AP or the New York Times but truth-seekers of all types.
If we can seize this dark moment as the start of such a movement to restore press freedom, we might someday be able to look back at this like we do the Pentagon Papers or Watergate, as a shining moment for the journalism profession and the First Amendment.
And then maybe journalists can be even stronger voice when the rights of people without big audiences and powerful platforms are violated here and around the world.
That's something that would set Nixon spinning in his grave.