The Obama administration has zealously prosecuted leaks involving national security, but the secret collection of records for 20 Associated Press phone lines reaches a new level.

By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
May 19, 2013, 8:41 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the Obama administration brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against Thomas Drake, an Air Force veteran and intelligence expert at the National Security Agency in Maryland.

He was not accused of aiding the enemy or of revealing national secrets. He had, however, helped a Baltimore Sun reporter reveal a billion-dollar boondoggle at the NSA — a computerized data-scanning system that never worked as planned.

The case against Drake collapsed on the eve of his trial when it was revealed that the information was not classified.

But the effort to prosecute an avowed whistle-blower sent a clear message that the Obama administration would zealously prosecute leaks involving national security, even if it meant pushing the margins of the law.

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Last week, the Associated Press complained to the Justice Department of a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news-gathering operation. Lawyers who defend whistle-blowers saw the latest incident as part of a pattern. The secret seizure of records for 20 phones lines used by AP reporters surprised even some who had grown used to the administration’s hard line.

“Every president wants to control the message, but this administration has taken things to a different level,” said Kathleen McClellan, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, an organization that protects whistle-blowers. “They have indicted a record number of people under the Espionage Act, and they have been very willing to go after journalists.”

Media law experts were surprised at the scale of the seizure. “The scope of this is truly big, unlike anything we had seen before,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland.

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