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How to avoid another Justice raid on reporter phone records

The secret combing of AP phone records by Justice in pursuit of a security leak shows the need to better define the overlapping roles of government and the press in their mutual desire to protect the American people.

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Attorney General Eric Holder is questioned about the Justice Department secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press, during a news conference May 14.

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Americans look to both government and the press to protect their interests. But when the two institutions battle over who better defends those interests – especially on national security – it’s time for each side to strike a deal.

That should now be the case in light of the news that the Justice Department had secretly obtained two months’ worth of phone records belonging to The Associated Press. The investigation is part of a hunt for someone in government who leaked information to the AP last year about a thwarted terrorist plot in Yemen.

The leak, claims Attorney General Eric Holder, “put the American people at risk,” although he didn’t say much more about whether such risk was imminent. And, he contends, the AP was not told beforehand of the records search because it might have jeopardized the investigation (again, not elaborating).

The AP, however, says the search was a serious interference on its right to gather news and offer anonymity to sources. The AP also has a good record, as do many news organizations, of working with officials if it can be shown how a news story in the works might jeopardize national security or endanger lives.

This case highlights the need for a rebalancing of the trust and mistrust between government and the media in dealing with national security. Mr. Holder seemed to indicate as much on Wednesday when he called for an “after-action analysis” of what he calls the “AP case.” Many in Congress back the AP against the Obama administration’s intrusion on the inner workings of reporters.

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