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Editorial: Beseiged watchdogs

Journalists everywhere are in an uproar over the U.S. Department of Justice decision to seize records on more than 20 phone lines assigned to the Associated Press, that could have been used by as many as 100 reporters.

Attorney General Eric Holder told the media the seizure was part of an effort to identify an informant who leaked confidential information in connection to details disclosed by AP about a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Holder said the information disclosed represented a real threat to the American public.

According to Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, the unprecedented intrusion is a direct challenge to a free press, and part of a broader pattern designed to inhibit the free flow of news and information from sources not licensed or controlled by the government.

The Obama Administration has a record of the most prosecutions ever of government employees over leaks to the press under the nearly-100 year old Espionage Act.

We think the problem goes even deeper to the shadowy patterns of governance that have become increasingly institutionalized since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting [and] Strengthening America [by] Providing Appropriate Tools Required [to] Intercept [and] Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) has granted broad powers of secrecy to the organizations that investigate and prosecute a broad collection of crimes described as terrorism.

At the same time, our goverment is charged by its founders to provide open decision-making. The authors of the U.S. Constitution carefully crafted the First Amendment to provide for a strong, independent press to monitor the government and guard against the abuse of power.

Such a broad invasion of Associated Press records puts that ability at great risk. The phone records seized have the potential to reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities of the AP during a two-month period, said AP CEO Gary Pruitt, in a statement after the seizures.

It is the worst example of a disturbing trend of the Obama Adminstration to interfere with the press in conducting their constitutional responsibilities.

The even bigger problem is that this institutionalized system of leaks is often the only way to get information to the public to which they should legitimately have access.

Instead of putting the informants on trial, the Obama Administration should be investigating the processes and systems that keep U.S. citizens in the dark about the most severe uses of government power.

Outside the Washington, D.C., beltway, anonymous sources are usually considered for use in a story only when named sources can provide supporting verification.

Inside the beltway, anonymous sources are frequently quoted without any further corroboration in final stories. The end result is often unreliable information requiring correction later on.

Americans have a constitutional right to know about the actions of its government. When more and more government action is cloistered, it forces the press to seek alternative source wherever they can find them.

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