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Echoes of Watergate in the current media leak situation

May 31, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


Today marks the anniversary of one of the biggest “reveals” in journalism history: the naming of the Watergate source. The irony is that the current feud between the press and the executive branch has some people making Watergate comparisons again.

800px-Watergate_ComplexOn May 31, 2005, Mark Felt, a former high-ranking FBI official, confirmed that he was “Deep Throat,” the critical source of information that broke open the Watergate scandal, in an article for Vanity Fair.

And today, at least two major news outlets will be in private meetings with Attorney General Eric Holder, as the Obama administration explains why it seized the records of the Associated Press and Fox News, in an effort to determine leaks to the press.

The press has already been told it can’t report on its meeting with Holder; because of this, some outlets have refused to attend the information session.

The whole concept of a White House battling a press corps over leaks has a lot of First Amendment connotations.

In the Nixon era, the administration set up a team called The Plumbers to find out who was leaking classified information to the media. The group was involved in a break-in related to Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. (Its last break-in was at the Watergate complex.)

The Nixon administration didn’t pursue an investigation to identify Felt as Deep Throat, although there were suspicions about him at the time. Only a handful of people at The Washington Post knew Felt’s identity.

But during the Watergate era, as documented on tapes and papers released after a Supreme Court decision, the administration directed the the Internal Revenue Service to look into the taxes of its political opponents and the entire Congress.

Two people familiar with Watergate and the current administration, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, don’t see a parallel between the Obama IRS scandal and Watergate.

“I know there have been these comparisons to Watergate, but I’d say not yet,” Woodward told MSNBC.

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But journalists of all types have been irate at the White House over the Justice Department’s moves to obtain various types of records from the AP and Fox News.

Bernstein was upset about what he saw as a reach beyond the First Amendment by the Obama administration when it came to the AP.

“This is intimidation, this is wrong; the president of the United States should have long ago put a stop to this in his presidency,” Bernstein told MSNBC. “The object of it is to intimidate people from talking to reporters.”

The AP dropped the bombshell news on May 13 that a secret subpoena had been used by the Justice Department to obtain two months of telephone records of reporters and editors from April and May 2012.

In May 2012, the AP reported about a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

In a statement, the AP said it had held the story at the request of the Obama administration due to national security concerns, and only published it “once officials said those concerns were allayed.”

The Justice Department seized records for more than 20 separate telephone lines used by the AP.

The Fox News story is about James Rosen, a reporter who wrote about developments in North Korea in 2009 using classified information obtained from a State Department official. The FBI began investigating Rosen in 2010, looking at his phone records and emails.

In a statement about the AP and Fox News cases, the Justice Department said it has abided by “all applicable laws, regulations, and longstanding Department of Justice policies intended to safeguard the First Amendment interests of the press in reporting the news and the public in receiving it.”

Whether Rosen will face charges—or can even be charged—in the incident is uncertain. The State Department official, Stephen Kim, was charged in 2010. The Justice Department called Rosen a “co-conspirator” when it asked a judge for permission to investigate the reporter.

The Washington Post says that Rosen used a code name, Alex, in his talks with Kim that was a tribute to Alexander Butterfield, the man who set up Nixon’s taping system in the White House.

The AP, Fox News, The New York Times, the Huffington Post, and CNN have all refused to sit down with Holder for that “off-the-record” talk about the AP and Fox investigations. The Washington Post and Politico will be at the Holder meeting.

Holder may apologize for parts of the AP and Fox investigations at the meeting.

"The A.G. realizes that things might have gotten a little out of balance, and he wants to make changes to be sure the rules fully account for the balance between the First Amendment and law enforcement," the source told Politico.

It’s far from certain that Holder’s moves can appease a visibly angry press.

“Obama administration officials often talk about the balance between protecting secrets and protecting the constitutional rights of a free press. Accusing a reporter of being a ‘co-conspirator,’ on top of other zealous and secretive investigations, shows a heavy tilt toward secrecy and insufficient concern about a free press,” The New York Times said in an editorial where it defended its arch-rivals at Fox News.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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