Of the twin scandals that broke for the Obama administration this week, the one that at this early point seems more troubling is that of the secret gathering of Associated Press phone records. That is not to say that the targeting of Tea Party and related groups by the Internal Revenue Service is defensible. Neither should have happened, but one appears to have been the result of a very bad decision at some so-far unknown level of bureaucracy. The other, subpoenaing the phone records of more than 100 editors and reporters, reaches nearly to the top of the Department of Justice, and, as such, White House involvement is all but assumed.
Attorney General Eric Holder this week described the A.P. probe as part of an investigation into a government leak about a failed Al Qaeda bomb plot. The Obama administration has been aggressive in trying to find out who among its ranks has talked to the media before, but this may stand as most far-reaching.
The chilling effect on newsgathering, while perhaps not intentional, cannot be overlooked. Those who might have in the past spoken to reporters about weighty matters in the public interest may well now fear retaliation. Reporters may similarly feel unsafe discussing sensitive topics with editors, even in matters not ready for publication.
In short, the wide net of the subpoena of A.P. records seems to have broken the laws that give news organizations the chance to challenge subpoenas in court, and hampers the constitutionally protected assurance of a free press. This is a shameful episode, no matter how the attorney general and others in Washington try to spin it as necessary and in the national interest.