Dirty Hands

Count me among those who are troubled by the Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records. Yes, there are circumstances where “leaks” can compromise legitimate security interests (e.g., an ongoing operation to stop an impending act of terrorism) and where First Amendment absolutism is more a self-serving justification for media competition and “scoops” than any vindication of the public’s “right to know.” I’ve seen no evidence so far that the Yemeni “story” the AP broke falls into that category, though perhaps I’m missing something.

But let’s do get one thing straight: some of the critics of the Justice Department’s overreaching in this case don’t exactly come to the controversy with clean hands. Remember the brouhaha in 2012 over “Obama’s security leaks?” Here’s a reminder from a June 10 article in the Washington Times:

Sen. John McCain ripped the White House again Sunday over national security leaks, putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of President Obama.

“I have no idea whether the president knew,” Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, said early Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The president may not have done it himself, but the president is certainly responsible as the commander in chief.”

Mr. McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Mr. Obama, has been the leading critic of the White House over the national security leaks, which he and other congressional leaders blame on the administration.

Mr. Obama on Friday said that accusation was “offensive.”

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Mr. Obama said during a White House news conference. “It’s wrong.”

Mr. McCain threw that charge back at the White House on Sunday.

“It’s ‘offensive’ what has happened,” he said, and he again rejected the idea that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should be in charge of an investigation into the leaks.

Mr. McCain said Congress wants to see an outside investigator look into the leaks because the Obama-appointed Mr. Holder has “no credibility.”

The controversy over the security breaches began last week with the publication in the New York Times of a story that included detailed information about covert U.S. cyberattacks on Iranian computers.

The Arizona senator and other leading Republicans have accused administration officials of trying to bolster Mr. Obama’s foreign policy credentials ahead of the November election.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the supposed semi-totalitarian Eric Holder, now being accused of vicious disregard of First Amendment rights in the AP case, was not that long ago being accused of complicity or negligence in failing to go after leaks of national security information.

The “weak on leaks” attack-line became part of the boilerplate of conservative criticism of the administration throughout the 2012 election cycle, to the point where it sure looks like the administration decided to go far out of its way to get “tough on leaks.” If so, that was clearly a mistake, and deserves to be exposed and criticized as such. But let’s also demand a little consistency from those who called Obama and his Attorney General threats to national security for failing to stanch leaks and now call them threats to liberty for trying to do so.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.