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Stop spying on a free press

There’s a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment, along with other non-negotiable constitutional guarantees. The Founders knew the dangers of unchecked power, as Americans still do today, and journalists remain a bulwark against the excesses of government.

It would be reassuring that President Barack Obama uttered as much in his national security speech last week, calling a free press “essential for our democracy,” but Obama’s rhetoric puts him in bizarre conflict with the actions of his own administration.

Just days earlier came the revelation that the Justice Department had been snooping into the comings and goings of Fox News reporter James Rosen and got a warrant to search his e-mail and phone records. That followed a disclosure about the department’s secret dragnet through phone records of The Associated Press, plus the home phones and cellphones of certain reporters, in a broad overreach beyond the government’s own guidelines.

The administration should end its spying on journalists and find another way to stop leaks from the bureaucracy. The tactics have the smell of an intimidation campaign against the very institution that Obama says he wants to protect.

Which is it, Mr. President?

Obama is taking two approaches to resolve the building tension with news organizations. One, he called for passage of a proposed shield law for journalists that would offer qualified protection against government intrusions into news gathering. Most states, including Texas, have checks and balances between journalists and the government, and Congress is overdue in enacting one on the federal level.

Styled as the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill would involve the courts in mediating standoffs over subpoenas of the media. It would deter fishing expeditions while respecting the legitimate interest in prosecuting lawbreakers inside government. The balance serves the public’s right to know what goes on deep inside the bureaucracy.

Obama’s other initiative was a review he promised into the Justice Department’s seizure of media records. That would be a good goal, except that Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the review. The president needs to find a neutral third party because of Holder’s involvement in the snooping campaign.

NBC News reported that Holder approved the subpoena against Rosen, who was accused in an FBI affidavit of committing a violation of the Espionage Act either as a “co-conspirator and/or aider and abettor” of a State Department employee accused of leaking sensitive information.

Further, 50 media companies — including A. H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News and the Denton Record-Chronicle — have called on Holder to return phone records taken from The Associated Press or prohibit their further use.

The Justice Department’s clandestine campaign puts Holder at loggerheads with the news industry and with the public’s interest. We welcome efforts he can make to clear the air, but Obama should turn elsewhere for an objective assessment of the hardball tactics.

The Dallas Morning News