President Biden uttered “it’s simply, simply wrong” when news arrived that the Trump Justice Department had spied on reporters’ phone records and emails to try to catch leakers.
Mr. Biden’s verdict sounded great for the First Amendment in an era of left-wing muzzling.
You would never guess that the not-so-long-ago Obama-Biden administration conducted some of the most mindboggling spying on journalists in modern U.S. history.
How does the Kremlin or Tehran or Beijing top this? The last Democratic administration bugged the Washington bureau of the nation’s leading wire service, the Associated Press.
The AP operation was part of a larger press assault. The Obama-Biden team displayed little hesitancy in targeting journalists not only to find sources, but to make examples for any sources in waiting.
In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder approved the extensive intrusion into the AP’s daily reporter-source communications. He wanted to know who tipped off the wire service to a CIA operation that stopped an al Qaeda airplane bomb plot hatched in Yemen.
Obama-Biden was not content with just spying on the AP’s D.C. bureau. The feds harvested a large number of records — including reporters’ home and cell phone calls –– from AP’s Hartford and New York offices and its bureau in the House of Representatives.
It was not mob-style wiretapping, with agents in headsets in a disguised van. Instead, the FBI secretly collected a larger number of digits –– who called whom –– revealing just about everyone AP’s reporters routinely contacted.
“This sort of activity really amounts to massive government monitoring of the actions of the press, and it really puts a dagger at the heart of AP’s newsgathering activities,” AP’s lawyer David Schultz, told NPR.
There were no subpoenas to AP. No warnings. Just raw data collection. (Imagine what Adam Schiff would do if Trump…).
So offended was Gary B. Pruitt, AP’s president and chief executive, that he wrote directly to Mr. Holder in May 2013.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters,” Mr. Pruitt wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
He said Mr. Holder violated the department’s own regulations to make subpoenas on a news reporter’s call records as narrow as possible.
That same month the Obama-Biden team outdid itself. Not content with bugging bureaus, they decided to stalk a reporter, James Rosen, then of Fox News.
An FBI May 2010 affidavit revealed the Justice Department viewed the diplomatic reporter as a criminal — a “co-conspirator” — for reporting classified information on a North Korean nuclear test.
“There is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator, to which the materials relate,” the FBI agent wrote.
Federal law 793 makes it a crime to leak classified information and conviction can bring a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
The FBI tailed Mr. Rosen’s comings and goings at the State Department by monitoring his card swipes and by prying into his personal GMail account.
“We are outraged to learn today that James Rosen was named a criminal co-conspirator for simply doing his job as a reporter,” Michael Clemente, then Fox News’ executive vice president of news, said at the time. “In fact, it is downright chilling.”
The liberal website Slate.com weighed in: “Government spying on Fox News Reporter Even Worse Than AP Case.”
The Obama-era FBI used reporters’ emails to nail other leakers, including:
— CIA covert officer John Kiriakou. He leaked two names of covert officers involved in the infamous “enhanced interrogations” of captured Islamic terrorists to The New York Times and other news organizations. The Obama administration opened a probe in 2010 and charged him in 2012 based on his back-in-forth emails with reporters.
— Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, said to be Mr. Obama’s favorite general when he served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The FBI read his email communications with a New York Times reporter about the secret U.S. operation to inject the Stuxnet malware into Iran’s nuclear machinery. Confronted with the emails, he confessed to the FBI.
By 2016, the Obama-Biden administration racked up quite a record: the most anti-leak administration in modern history, if the judging is based on criminal convictions. Such cases had been relatively rare. They scored nine of them against government officials.
The Obama-Biden anti-press history is relevant given President Biden’s dismissal of President Trump’s efforts to find leakers using journalists’ phone and email records. Three such cases at the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN came to light recently.
“Why not?” Trump people might say. The Obama-Biden penchant for reading reporters’ emails, texts and phone logs — well, it works.
They nabbed James Rosen’s source, who went to prison. Mr. Cartwright pleaded guilty as did Mr. Kiriakou.
As for Mr. Holder’s AP bureau phone sweep — it also hit pay dirt.
The leaker was former FBI special agent bomb technician Donald Sachtleben, who then worked as a bureau contractor. His name showed up via AP reporters’ phone records. The FBI then obtained Mr. Sachtleben’s texts and emails from his devices. A judge sentenced him to three years in prison. (He also pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography.)
The Obama-Biden team had a loathsome record on another facet of open government.
An Associated Press analysis released in 2015 said Obama administration bureaucrats set a record for refusing open-records requests, filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The backlog of unanswered requests grew by an astounding 55%.
Mr. Biden likes pronouncing things “wrong, simply wrong.” He used the phrase against Mitt Romney in the 2012 election and against Mr. Trump in 2020.
“Wrong, simply wrong” spoken to a CNN reporter last month is a good media play. Mr. Biden knows the liberal mass media is his most important constituency.
He occasionally keeps them in check with a scolding dismissive retort when a question veers to a “conservative” theme. During the 2020 campaign, “Today Show” co-host Savannah Guthrie asked Mr. Biden if it was wrong for son Hunter to take a lucrative corporate board job in 2014 in Ukraine. Critics say it was an attempt to buy influence with the vice president.
“Well, that’s not true. You’re saying things you do not know what you’re talking about,” Mr. Biden snapped.
During the transition, aides guided Mr. Biden away after delivering a statement alongside congressional Democrats.
CBS News Bo Erickson then asked if the president-elect would urge the teachers union to get kids back in the classroom.
“Why are you the only guy that always shouts out questions?” Mr. Biden shot back, and walked away.
Conservatives are asking the same question.
Rowan Scarborough can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RoScarborough.
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