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Leakgate! Scorn pours on Obama over swoop on AP: 'Ability of the press to report freely is under siege'

Things are different in America - still. Despite all the togetherness of the internet and super-easy air travel, you can even today be surprised (for good or ill) at what's going across the Atlantic. This blog, borrowing its title from the legendary Alistair Cooke, aims to keep you in the picture about things you might not otherwise know.

Fury is growing in the US over the Obama Justice Department's sweeping seizure of Associated Press phone records in a so-called war on leaks, with commentators harking back to Richard Nixon, that most reviled president of all.

Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein called the AP operation "inexcusable."

"The object of it is to intimidate people who talk to reporters ... there's no excuse for it whatsoever," he said.

"There is no reason that a presidency that is interested in a truly free press and its functioning should permit this to happen."

On Monday, the AP revealed the names of five reporters and an editor targeted, all of whom worked on a story in May last year reporting that the CIA had thwarted a terrorist plot in Yemen.

Yesterday the AP confirmed that Washington bureau chief Sally Buzbee was also among the journalists targeted .

The Obama administration has prosecuted six leak-related cases, more than all previous administrations combined. Obama's paranoia is being compared to that of Richard Nixon .

Journalists say potential whistleblowers are becoming increasingly fearful of providing details of government waste, illegality or corruption.

Ron Fournier, a former AP Washington bureau chief, now with the National Journal said on MSNBC that the Department of Justice action was "chilling" and "only meant to intimidate whistleblowers."

"Not only is it chilling, it is stupid," Fournier said. "These folks at the Associated Press are now going to double down on investigating the White House, on doing their jobs. They're not going to be intimidated.

"There's going to be more stories broken than Washington has subpoenas," he added. "The AP is not the kind of news organization, and especially these reporters, who you want to tick off."

Buzbee is not recusing herself from coverage of the story. It would be nearly impossible for everyone affected in some way to recuse themselves, since more than 100 journalists could have been affected.

In the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote witheringly of Obama's promise of unprecedented transparency when he took office:

"My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

Sullivan wrote , "Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.

"Instead, it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and of unprecedented attacks on a free press."

Sullivan said she wrote about the chilling effect of the Obama administration’s leak investigations – including the ramped-up criminal prosecution of those who provide information to the press — in a Sunday column in March.

"Now that situation, already bad, has taken a major turn for the worse with revelations that the Obama Justice Department had secretly seized the phone records of a large number of journalists for The Associated Press, as part of a leak investigation.

Why should what happens to another news organization matter to Times readers?

"The ability of the press to report freely on its government is a cornerstone of American democracy," said Sullivan. " That ability is, by any reasonable assessment, under siege.

"Reporters get their information from sources. They need to be able to protect those sources and sometimes offer them confidentiality. If they can’t be sure about that – and it looks increasingly like they can’t – the sources will dry up. And so will the information.

"Sad to say, that seems to be exactly what the Justice Department has in mind with its leak investigations, two of which involve Times journalists. One has to do with the chief Washington correspondent David Sanger’s book and articles about American cyberattacks against Iran, the other is Scott Shane and Jo Becker’s article from last May about Mr. Obama’s “kill list.”

Sullivan said The Times’s executive editor, Jill Abramson, put it simply when asked about it yesterday: “The press is supposed to hold government accountable. These investigations intrude on that process.”

The Times stories that are the subject of leak investigations “were in the great tradition of Washington reporting, helping people understand how decisions were made,” The Times’s newsroom lawyer, David McCraw, told Sullivan. “There was no compromising of national security involved.”

“The net effect is universal,” he said. “People are less willing to talk, and that’s a loss for everyone.”

The Times is one of the many news and press rights organizations that signed a strongly worded letter yesterday to the Justice Department leadership .

"This isn’t just about press rights," said Sullivan. " It’s about the right of citizens to know what their government is doing. In an atmosphere of secrecy and punishment – despite the hollow promises of transparency — that’s getting harder every day."

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