Investigative reporter Carl Bernstein on Tuesday called the scandal involving the Department of Justice securing telephone records of Associated Press reporters and editors a "nuclear event."
"This is outrageous," Bernstein said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "It is totally inexcusable. This administration has been terrible on this subject from the beginning.
"The object of it is to intimidate people who talk to reporters," he said. "This was an accident waiting to become a nuclear event, and now it's happened."
The AP reported late Monday afternoon that the "Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press."
The organization was not told the reason for the seizure. But the timing and the specific journalistic targets strongly suggest they are related to a continuing government investigation into the leaking of information a year ago about the CIA's disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner, The New York Times reported.
The development represents the latest collision of news organizations and federal investigators over government efforts to prevent the disclosure of national security information, and it comes against a backdrop of an aggressive policy by the Obama administration to rein in leaks, according to The New York Times.
Under President Barack Obama, six current and former government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined.
"The numerical thing doesn't matter," said Bernstein, a former Washington Post reporter who, along with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. "What matters is, this is a matter of policy. It is known to the president of the United States that this is the policy. To say that there was no knowledge, in quotes, specifically about this in the White House is nonsense."
"This is a policy matter, and this does go to the president and the people around him," he said. "The idea is to try and make an example of those people who talk to reporters, especially on national security matters. National security is always the false claim of administrations trying to hide things that people ought to know."
That the Justice Department sought records of phone calls made over congressional phone lines could also raise a separation of powers issue between the administration and legislative branches of government.
"The First Amendment is first for a reason," House Speaker John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel tells Newsmax. "If the Obama administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation."
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