The protection of a free press is written, word by word, in the Constitution. It isn’t an offshoot of the right to free expression, or a judicial interpretation of the Framers’ intentions: It’s at the core of the nation’s framework of governance. It’s meant to be a check on government power, and explicitly bans Congress from enacting any law that abridges it. Thus, the Justice Department, by its own rules, can only seek information from reporters in special circumstances, and subpoenas must be written “as narrowly as possible.”
That wasn’t the case when the Justice Department secretly examined two months of phone records of more than 20 lines belonging to the Associated Press and its reporters, including the main news numbers in Washington, New York, Hartford, and the AP’s congressional bureau. The Justice Department was investigating whether any government officials gave the AP classified information about the CIA’s infiltration of an Al Qaeda cell in Yemen. The unauthorized release of the information may have cost the agency a key source inside Al Qaeda. The stakes seem high enough to justify such a probe — but not to justify two months’ worth of fishing around in general AP phone records, searching for a needle in a haystack.