Updates 10:50am 5/14/13
The Obama administration woke up on Tuesday to another morning of scorching criticism about the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.
The DOJ tracked the incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell phone lines for six individual journalists involved in writing a national security-related story about Yemen that the Obama administration did not want them to write.
The operation has been roundly condemned by journalists and press freedom groups. That condemnation continued on Monday night and Tuesday morning.
Reporters Without Borders called the probe an “extremely grave violation of freedom of information.”
NBC News’ Michael Isikoff quoted a whistleblower advocate who made the dreaded comparison to Richard Nixon:
“The Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’ phone records is Nixonian,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a group that advocates on behalf of whistleblowers. “The American public deserves a full accounting of why and how this could happen.”
Speaking to Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, Isikoff explained further why people were so alarmed.
“It is not unprecedented for the Justice Department to secretly get the numbers of reporters,” he said. “What’s remarkable is the sweeping nature of this, the dragnet approach … and that’s why you have some press watchdog groups tonight, and freedom of the press groups saying this is positively Nixonian. They have not seen a precedent for this in decades.”
Others also zeroed in on the link. Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith even put up a GIF that showed Obama transforming into Nixon in his article on the scandal.
Smith wrote that the nuclear nature of the probe could, in part, be traced back to Obama, who has made it a policy to aggressively go after leaks in a fashion not seen in any of his predecessors. Though the White House said it had nothing to do with the probe and referred reporters to the Justice Department, Smith wrote that it was not hard to see Obama’s hand in some way:
Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.
Writing for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Trevor Timm also said that the scandal was one of the White House’s own making.
“The White House created this war-on-leaks monster,” he wrote. “Congress has only encouraged its expansion, instead of investigating the wrongdoing that many of the leaks exposed. And now, it’s out of control.”
On Tuesday, AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll underscored just how stunning the Justice Department’s actions were.
“I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years,” she said on “Morning Joe.” “Our First Amendment lawyers, and our lawyers inside the AP, and our CEO, who’s also a well-known First Amendment lawyer, none of us have ever seen anything like this.”
Speaking on the same program, famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was even more scathing, calling the operation “inexcusable.”
“This administration has been terrible on this issue from the beginning,” he said. “The object of it is to intimidate people who talk to reporters … there’s no excuse for it whatsoever.” He added that it was “nonsense” to say that the White House would have been unaware of such a probe.
“This is a policy matter, and this does go to the president,” he said. “There is no reason that a presidency that is interested in a truly free press and its functioning should permit this to happen.”
The White House was in damage control mode Tuesday morning as an escalating series of potential scandals raised questions about whether officials abused their authority — all while threatening to undermine President Obama’s second-term ambitions.
The latest controversy to hit the headlines was the allegation that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records from Associated Press journalists. The AP went public with the charge Monday, and quickly earned sympathy from lawmakers on both sides of the lawmakers who widely agreed that the record grab appeared to be unnecessarily intrusive.
House Speaker John Boehner’s office said “they better have a damned good explanation.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said he’s “very troubled” by the allegations.
Attorney General Eric Holder is sure to come under heavy questioning on the matter when he appears on Capitol Hill for a hearing Wednesday, and could face questions during an unrelated press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The AP allegations amounted to the second controversy that raised concerns from members of both parties and could not be easily dismissed by the administration as a partisan attack. The other was the acknowledgement Friday by the IRS that it inappropriately singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for scrutiny.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a Tea Party-aligned lawmaker, said those responsible should be fired.
“Anybody who was aware of, and approved of targeting people for their political beliefs and speech, needs to be fired, never in this position again, and made an example of,” he told Fox News on Tuesday.
Those two controversies came on top of a revived clamor in Washington over the Benghazi terror attack. Three whistle-blowers brought the issue back to the fore with their dramatic testimony last week. Further, newly published email excerpts show that a top State Department official pressed the intelligence community to water down its initial story-line on the attack in the days before a top diplomat went on television to explain the attack to the public.
And amid that controversy, FoxNews.com and other news organizations reported that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been reaching out to private-sector executives seeking donations for nonprofit organizations that help enroll people in ObamaCare.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has already launched a probe into the solicitations. Republicans on the committee voiced concern that the department could be soliciting donations from firms that are also doing business with HHS.
Together, the scandals threaten to distract from Obama’s second-term agenda. He recently suffered a defeat on gun control, but was hoping to align with influential Capitol Hill Republicans to push for an immigration overhaul in the coming weeks.
Obama, in a press conference on Monday, downplayed the scandals. He called Benghazi a political “sideshow” driven by partisan motives. As for the IRS, he made clear that he found the alleged conduct to be unacceptable and would not tolerate it.
But the administration has distanced itself from that controversy, attributing it to the actions of low-level staffers. The White House also distanced itself from the AP phone record grab, referring questions to the Justice Department.