Don’t Be Surprised by Dept. of Justice’s AP Probe

When the feds cite "national security concerns," they mean "because we felt like it."

As the immortal hip hop duo Mobb Deep rapped back in 1995, “ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.” In “Shook Ones Pt. II,” Prodigy warns, if you “speak the wrong words, man you will get touched.”

Given the actions of the Department of Justice this past week, it seems like they might know a little bit about that. In response to a report from the Associated Press in May of last year regarding a foiled bombing plot in Yemen, the DOJ launched a two-month-long probe into the AP’s phone records, netting communications information from more than 100 reporters and editors across multiple bureaus, according to AP estimates. In some cases, the secret probe extended to home and cell phone records as well, so the investigation was thorough.

Especially thorough considering how benign the report itself is. It doesn’t really seem like the AP spoke any wrong words to get themselves touched by the Federal Government. But, of course, the DOJ would beg to differ, citing recently in the press that the report provoked “national security concerns,” which, by now, we all should recognize as bureaucrat for “because we felt like it.”

The reaction of the press corps itself has, not surprisingly, been particularly unkind. You pretty much can’t run into an editorial about this that doesn’t refer to the Obama Administration as “Nixonian” or invoke Watergate in some way, and maybe not without good reason. The AP’s official response to the DOJ is all but seething, demanding the immediate return of all phone records and destruction of any copies. Everyone from civil libertarians to left-wing socialists—except, apparently, Dianne Feinstein—isn’t too happy about this.

And while I understand the ire behind all this snooping, I’m not exactly sure where the surprise is coming from. Gangsters, after all, will be gangsters, and we’re talking about the federal government here.

In fact, this kind of thing appears so routine that when asked about signing off on the AP probe and others like it, Eric Holder pretty much said he couldn’t remember:

“I’m not sure how many of those cases … I have actually signed off on,” Holder said. “I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few [and] pushed a few back for modifications.”

To translate, Holder means “a lot.”

Since Obama took office, his administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than the sum total of all other previous administrations. That law is nearly 100 years old and was originally intended to quell international espionage, not intimidate journalists.

Espionage Act antics aside, it’s not as if the federal government has been kind to those willing to provide leaks to the press over the last seven years. We’ve got the Wikileaks funding impasse, the drawn-out torture and persecution of Bradley Manning, extreme leaps in surveillance by multiple federal organizations, and more support for Internet surveillance from President Obama than Mobb Deep has for running the block. The media, First Amendment aside, is apparently no different. Snitches are looked down upon in the current political climate, “national security” or no. Which, fortunately, only makes them that much more essential.

But just as gangster lore has people chasing paper, the federal government is chasing information, apparently in an effort to control its flow and distribution while stockpiling as much as they can about all of us. Anyone who has some of the good stuff just can’t be trusted, and anyone who would publish that good stuff only needs to be smacked around—or at least threatened—until they see the situation from another perspective. Hence a two-month, wide-ranging wiretap at one of the biggest news sources in the world. Hell, even the New York Times is worried.

And, really, it doesn’t get much more gangster than that.