Obama’s struggle: How free should the press be? (+video)
President Obama says he's trying to strike a balance between national security and essential freedoms. Now, after his own Justice Department accessed reporters' phone records, he wants to protect against 'overreach.' Some say he's trying to have it both ways.
Deep into his one-hour speech Thursday on counterterrorism policy, President Obama reached a topic that is near and dear to the news media’s heart: the ability of journalists to pursue their craft without fear of government intrusion.
Mr. Obama announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will conduct a review of the guidelines governing Justice Department investigations into reporters’ activities, with input from media organizations. Mr. Holder is to report back to the president by July 12.
Chances are, Holder already knows what he will hear: Hands off our phone records and emails. Recent revelations that prosecutors have accessed journalists’ private data have sparked an outcry not just from the media, but also from the public and members of Congress of both parties. The Obama administration has defended its aggressive tactics in tracking down leaks of sensitive national security information.
But in his address, Obama demonstrated an ambivalence toward this approach, as he described the balance he is trying to strike between protecting national security and “the freedoms that make us who we are.” It was a central theme of his speech.
“As commander in chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information,” Obama said. “But a free press is also essential for our democracy.”
The president also said that journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs, and repeated his new support for a media shield law to guard against what he called “government overreach.”
Last week, the Obama administration asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York to reintroduce legislation aimed at protecting journalists’ ability to keep the identity of their sources confidential. Four years ago, the administration sought to weaken the proposed shield law, which played a role in its demise.
Now, it’s a new day. First came the news that federal investigators, armed with a subpoena, had accessed the records of at least 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters. The case in question reportedly dealt with the foiling of a bomb plot in Yemen last year.