If there is one clear lesson to the story over the Department of Justice seeking the phone records of Associated Press reporters, it's that no one should ever take the advice of Joe Scarborough. The MSNBC host is in high dudgeon because people who might leak confidential info to reporters will clam up because they fear a federal investigation into leaks that he called called for last summer.
Speaking this morning to David Axelrod, the former Obama campaign manager who is now on the MSNBC payroll, Scarborough was in prosecutorial mode: "Answer my question: Will sources, confidential sources inside the federal government be intimidated because of what this administration, according to The New York Times, has been doing from the very beginning?" he demanded. Of course, it was a complete reversal of his position last July, when Mitt Romney was calling for a federal investigation into who was leaking the national security info that he thought was damaging his campaign. Speaking to Axelrod on July 25, Scarborough boomed: "Can the president assure America that his White House will batten down the hatches and stop the release of this classified information that is disturbing not only to men and women in the military, but disturbing to millions of Americans?" Here's that clip:
This morning Axelrod pointed out the contradiction between the two shows ("I appeared with you, and you challenged me with the same tone, actually, on these leaks") which received a sneer from Scarborough ("Don't shift this to me!"). This is not, of course, the first time that Scarborough has found himself defending his feelings against facts. He thought Nate Silver's statistical predictions of the 2012 election was "a joke" and he's vouched for his gut feelings about fiscal policy over the expertise of a Nobel Prize-winning economist like Paul Krugman.
The investigation into national security leaks should be easier to understand, because it involves no math. The investigation that lead to the subpoenas of the AP reporters is the very same investigation that was begun last summer after a few news cycles of campaign coverage were dedicated to the Romney campaign's accuations that the White House was leaking information that made it look tough on terrorism, including the AP's report that the CIA had foiled an underwear bomber in Yemen. After it's publication there were calls for investigations from Dianne Feinstein and the Romney campaign to track down the people who leaked the CIA information to the AP. "It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence," Romney said at the time. Scarborough joined the chorus, grilling Axelrod last July, "So what's gone wrong? What's happened? Why is it leaking out of the White House and how can we stop it?" and seemed mollified after Axelrod said they would be scaring the dickens out of anyone who might consider giving an AP reporter a scoop: "Joe, there's an investigation going -- well, you stop it by sending strong signals. Strong signals have been sent." A week after that discussion, The New York Times carried a story headlined "Inquiry Into U.S. Leaks Is Casting Chill Over Coverage." Reporter Scott Shane opened, "F.B.I. agents on a hunt for leakers have interviewed current and former high-level government officials from multiple agencies in recent weeks, casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings."
The White House is now coming under fire for the the Justice Department's subpoenaing of the Associated Press's phone records that's drawing a strong reaction from members of the press and calls for heads to roll from Politico's anonymous sources. (And from John Boehner, too.) The investigation is (allegedly) looking into the possible whistleblower who handed over national security information for a story that came out last summer about Al Qaeda terrorists unknowingly handing a sophisticated underwear bomb over to the CIA. The very same story that prompted Joe Scarborough to call for an investigation into the course of the leaks. And the very same story he was yelling at David Axelrod about Wednesday morning on Morning Joe.
Scarborough pressed Axelrod about the potential "chilling" of whistle-blowing sources over the Department of Justice's investigation into the AP. He was worried that whistle blowers may be hesitant to come forward with confidential information in the future. "I appeared with you, and you challenged me with the same tone, actually, on these leaks and said, 'When is the president going to send a strong signal to people that leaking classified information won’t be tolerated?'" Axelrod pointed out. "'When is is he going to make people accountable for these leaks?' [...] They’ve apparently interviewed 550 people and went to court and got a subpoena to do what they did. In order to do what you and others said should be done." Scarborough did not take kindly to Axelrod's memory of events, no sir:
“I’ve heard the president’s defenders try to say this, and I congratulate you guys for going off into a room and calling each other and coming up with this bogus argument — but never did I suggest that 100 AP reporters have all of their phone records seized, their private cell phone records seized, their home phone numbers seized. So please save that for somebody else that’s going to buy into that. Don’t shift this to me! Answer my question: Will sources, confidential sources inside the federal government be intimidated because of what this administration, according to The New York Times, has been doing from the very beginning?”
Axelrod conceded that it could have an impact on whistleblowers, but that the investigation was started "because many people, you included, said there shouldn’t be these leaks" of national security information.
This is all true. Scarborough suggested that some "middle ground" should exist between an investigation that would deter leaks but not involve an "overly broad" reach into the AP's phone records. But then, Scarborough, a former lawyer, is in about as good a position as anyone to know that prosecutors aren't known for their gentle demeanors. As Axelrod added, "The fact is, that everyone in the summer was clamoring for an investigation to do exactly what you now say you’re concerned about, which is chilling people who would leak."
So does Axelrod have a point? Yeah. The investigation into the AP's story probably wouldn't have been launched and carried out so aggressively if it wasn't for the airtime, columns and news segments Romney, Feinstein, Scarborough and any number of cable news pundits crowed so loudly about how their needed to be an investigation.
Scarborough isn't as dumb as Jon Stewart thinks he is. But this episode shows how he's not paid to think through his arguments much farther than the next segment, so in calling for a federal investigation into leaks he need not consider how federal prosecutors investigate leakers. The function of cable news is to be as outraged as possible over the headline of the day. Do it as long as you possibly can and wildly make suggestions about what should be done to improve the country — then move on. There's another segment, another thing to be outraged over, and more suggestions to be made. Are your suggestions good ideas? Who cares!
In retrospect, it's almost impossible to comprehend how one story could be so much of a headache for one administration. But that's the way cable news is now. They have to be angry about the press getting the story, about how they got the story, and about how the press may never get the story again. They never think about how they're the ones who caused both scandals in the first place.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.