Thursday, June 01, 2006

"A reckless abuse of power"

This one was a bit surprising.

The Justice Department recently subpoenaed the notes of reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle, as it attempted to identify whoever leaked grand jury testimony to the paper.

I've discussed before why the government should be cautious when it comes to trampling on reporter-source confidentiality. But what's interesting about this case is the source of the criticism: the former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The former spokesman, Mark Corallo ... said Mr. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, had acted improperly in issuing the subpoenas.

"This is the most reckless abuse of power I have seen in years," Mr. Corallo said in an interview. "They really should be ashamed of themselves."

The subpoenas, part of an effort to identify The Chronicle's sources for its coverage of steroid use in baseball, would not have been authorized by Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Corallo said. "You just don't ride roughshod over the rights of reporters to gather information from confidential sources," he added.

I'm not the only person who was surprised by the source of the criticism, and observers were quick to note the significance:

Specialists in journalism and First Amendment law said that Mr. Corallo's statement was itself significant evidence of a shift.

"This illustrates in an unmistakable fashion," said Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, "that the Gonzales Justice Department has moved so far away from the mainstream of established legal opinion and case law when it comes to press freedom that even judicial conservatives are disturbed by it."

I would not have believed it possible, but in Alberto "torture memo" Gonzales, Bush managed to find someone even more hostile to civil liberties than Ashcroft. That's quite an achievement.

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