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Editorial: Justice Department's targeting of Associated Press is over the top

The screen on the phone console at the

The screen on the phone console at the reception desk at The Associated Press Washington bureau. (May 13, 2013) Credit: AP

The Obama administration's extreme focus on secrecy may have gone too far. In its frenzy to find a leaker in its midst, the Department of Justice has targeted The Associated Press, obtaining two months of telephone calls on 20 lines used by reporters and editors, at work and at home.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who himself was interviewed by the FBI, has recused himself from the case. Still, yesterday he sought to justify his department's determination to find out who told the worldwide news agency classified details about a successful CIA anti-terror operation in Yemen. "This was a very serious leak. It put the American people at risk," he said.

If operatives' lives were lost, their identities revealed or intelligence methods and sources compromised, then there is a legitimate national interest in finding out who talked. But the Justice Department has provided so few details about its investigation that it's impossible to know whether it was urgent enough to justify secretly scooping up the records of incoming and outgoing calls in three offices routinely used by about 100 journalists. Even if the threshold of an immediate and compelling need could be made, the approach by federal prosecutors was too broad.

Situations such as this require a delicate balance between two important but competing interests. One is national security. The other is the freedom from government intrusion the press needs to keep the public informed about what the government is doing -- information essential for American-style participatory democracy to function. No source or whistle-blower with sensitive knowledge is going to share it with the press if he or she fears the government is listening.

There are well established Justice Department rules to ensure an appropriate balance. Government officials are required to ask for the information they want, negotiate its release and provide an opportunity for a news organization to challenge the request in court. Apparently none of that was done in this case.

According to the rules, subpoenas should only be used as a last resort. So far officials haven't revealed enough about the probe for anyone to make an objective assessment of whether that was necessary for the AP.

The administration can't ignore four decades of press-government guidelines forged after some of the worst moments in Washington history without complete disclosure about why it needed to do what it did.