Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sunday rumination: Federal probes of leaks threaten our Constitutional rights


According to The Washington Post, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Friday the government was stepping up its efforts to crack down on unauthorized sources of sensitive information.

Presumably the announcement that the Justice Department has more than tripled the number of leak investigations compared to the number under the Obama administration was made to appease President Donald Trump who has attacked the attorney general for not doing more to clamp down on leaks and, according to the report, to scare government officials away from talking about sensitive matters.

As the Post article points out, Trump "has complained vociferously" about unauthorized disclosures of information, especially when the leaks result in stories that are unflattering to the administration. (And there have been a lot of those since he took office as we all know.)

The most disturbing part of the report in my estimation is when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to rule out the possibility that journalists would be prosecuted saying, "I'm not going to comment on any hypotheticals."

The Post article goes on to state that it has long been Justice Department practice in leak probes to try to avoid investigating journalists directly to find their sources.

It's hard to imagine that in the Trump era, where the commander in chief has branded legitimate news outlets like CNN and The  New York Times as "Fake News," an appellation which is as unfair as it is inaccurate, that previous policies such as those which were in place when then Attorney General Eric Holder Jr said that as long as he was  heading the Justice Department no reporter would be jailed for doing his or her job, will remain unaltered.

Admittedly, and to be fair, attacks on the fourth estate have never been exclusive to any partisan agenda. As the Post also pointed out in their report, prosecutors in the Obama era brought nine leak cases, exceeding the total of all previous administrations combined, and in the process called a reporter a criminal "conspirator." and surreptitiously went after a journalists' phone records in an attempt to identify the reporters' sources.

When the leader of the free world embraces the phrase "Enemy of the People" to describe the American news media, there are real negative consequences and he makes it okay for the public to view journalists with more distrust than they already do and recklessly puts journalists doing important work in danger.

Don't believe me? Think this is mere hyperbole on my part? Well considered what happened to  Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs earlier this year.

Ben Jacobs, a Guardian political reporter, was asking Greg Gianforte, a tech millionaire endorsed by Donald Trump, about the Republican healthcare plan when the candidate allegedly “body-slammed” the reporter. In other instances, Trump supporters have been photographed at rallies wearing t-shirts emblazoned with such dictatorial rhetoric like "The best journalist is a dead journalist."

Americans who support the First Amendment and its guaranteed freedom of the press and who are also supportive of journalists' role in a democracy should shudder in fear when Sessions states that the government is reviewing the entire process of how media leak investigations are conducted, adding that they don't know yet what changes are coming down the pike, because they are taking a "fresh look."

The cornerstone of a free and democratic society is a free press. In America we don't jail members of the press for doing their jobs and part of that job entails speaking to sources and not compelling reporters to reveal their sources. Doing so would undermine a process that has been in place for years and which works to the benefit of society, not the converse, which the Trump administration would have us believe.

Without insiders providing information, journalists would be hampered in conducting probes and investigating government, an essential part of the checks and balances in our democratic process. Can you imagine Woodward and Bernstein being able to break a huge story like Watergate in the Vietnam era without the protections politicians have been trying to erode ever since?

Of course, Trump has shown himself to be either ignorant of these fundamental Constitutional processes freedoms and guarantees, or worse yet, he flaunts them openly in an attempt to conduct government in a fashion that dangerously borders authoritarian practices.

 So when Rosenstein, Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, among others in the White House elite announce they will be looking at reviewing policy in regards to leaks, it makes me very nervous and concerned. You should be as well.