A Government Too Big For Its Britches

The Department of Justice’s decision to covertly collect significant amounts of phone call data of the Associated Press is just another sign that we live in a country where the government has grown too big for its britches.

According to a letter sent by the AP to the Department of Justice protesting the action, the DOJ secretly gathered information about AP phone calls for two months.  The records include outgoing calls made on more than 20 telephone lines, including general telephone lines and a fax at AP offices in Hartford, Connecticut, New York City, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as records related to the calls of five reporters and an editor.  Although the government has not said why it collected the records, the five reporters and editor worked on an AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a plane and the Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation of the leak that led to the story.  The White House was unaware of the subpoenas and the gathering of phone records because the Department of Justice handles such actions independently.

Of course, reporters aren’t immune from prosecution if they commit criminal acts — but due regard for the First Amendment requires that any intrusion into news-gathering be strictly limited and carefully targeted, based on a particularized showing of need.  It’s hard to see how the DOJ action conformed to such restraints.  Finding out who the AP called goes to the heart of news-gathering, and collecting records on more than 20 phone lines used by AP employees hardly seems targeted or sensitive to First Amendment issues.  Instead, it seems like a fishing expedition — and perhaps one specifically designed to chill vigorous exercise of First Amendment rights.  And, of course, the veil of secrecy that the DOJ places over criminal investigations, and the lack of involvement by the White House, will make it difficult to hold people accountable for the action.

Stories about overreaching government employees and lack of accountability have become all too commonplace.  I think it’s one reason why many people have turned to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, hoping that the the written words will serve to restrain governmental excesses.  As the DOJ action in this instance show, however, written words have an effect only if people are paying attention to them.  How many of the DOJ employees who approved the broad collection of AP phone records, in their zeal to catch a leaker, really gave serious thought to what their actions were doing to the AP’s First Amendment rights?

Fast And Furious And Foolish

Let’s ponder, for a moment, “Operation Fast and Furious,” an ill-conceived, botched initiative that apparently was the brainchild of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) during the Obama Administration.  The fact that the effort was named after a hyper-macho, testosterone-laden Vin Diesel movie probably tells you all you need to know about the wisdom and thoughtfulness underlying the operation.

Operation Fast and Furious was supposed to help the BATF track and stop arms trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border.  As part of the operation, the BATF not only allowed loads of guns to be purchased and delivered into the hands of Mexican drug cartels but also, according to testimony from agents, prevented American agents from stopping the flow of arms across the border.  Unfortunately, the BATF couldn’t keep track of the guns, and they have ended up at crime scenes along the U.S.-Mexican border — including the scene where a U.S. border agent was murdered.  A recent letter from congressional investigators to Attorney General Eric Holder states, in part:  “The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in those activities.”

The stench surrounding Operation Fast and Furious is exacerbated by the fact that congressional investigators are claiming that the federal government is not being forthcoming about who knew about and approved the operation.  Recently the acting director of the BATF came forward, with his personal attorney, to testify before congressional investigators about apparent efforts by the Justice Department to block his testimony.  The DOJ denies any cover-up or wrongdoing.

With respect to the cover-up allegations, we’ll just have to see where the congressional investigation leads.  What does seem to be undisputed, however, is that this hare-brained operation involved U.S. agencies facilitating criminal activities that resulted in violence and death, including — apparently — the death of an American border agent.  How could any federal agency (or agencies, if more than one in fact was involved) have thought that injecting even more guns into the Mexican drug wars along the border was a good idea, and then been so careless in keeping track of the guns involved?

We should all keep the foolish riskiness of “Operation Fast and Furious,” and the unbelievably bad judgment exercised by those who approved and implemented it, in mind the next time we hear that the federal budget can’t be cut, or that we should just trust federal agencies and bureaucrats to make decisions on our behalf.