Police State Leak Hunt In Senate

CARL T. ROWAN

March 20, 1992|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington -- The most worrisome thing coming out of the Congress this week had nothing to do with bounced checks. It was word that Senate special counsel Peter E. Fleming Jr. had subpoenaed telephone records of the two reporters who first told the nation that Anita Hill was charging Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment.

Mr. Fleming has harassed the two reporters, Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Timothy M. Phelps of Newsday, forcing both to secure attorneys and attend hearings during which each asserted a constitutional right not to identify their sources.

Note that neither is accused of any violation of law. All they have done is their jobs, telling the American people what they have a profound right to know about the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas and the senators who had the power to grant or deny him a seat on the high tribunal.

Note also that the information leaked to Ms. Totenberg and Mr. Phelps was not classified and did not endanger national security -- only the re-election prospects of some Senate windbags.

A lot of senators were embarrassed by Ms. Hill's charges against Mr. Thomas. Some made asses of themselves in the confirmation hearings. In their fervor to cover their behinds, they hired Mr. Fleming to ferret out the leakers. Mr. Fleming also got a mandate to find out who leaked information to the Washington Times about the Senate's ethics probe of ''the Keating Five'' and the S&L scandal.

Mr. Fleming has been almost maniacal in his efforts to trample the First Amendment and discover who told whom what -- this in a city where leaks are an absolute staple of government, a bedrock of the ''American way of life.''

If the Senate does not rein Mr. Fleming in, we will see one of the most serious erosions of press freedom in our lifetimes.

Mr. Fleming cannot legally force Ms. Totenberg or Mr. Phelps to disclose their sources. He has no indictment, no charge of unlawful behavior. Yet, with galling and frightening arrogance, he decided he could invade their privacy by looking at records of their telephone calls. This is Gestapo stuff!

This is far more sinister than President Nixon's Watergate-era plans to intimidate the media with enemies lists, or President Reagan's attempt to muzzle federal officials by making them sign vows not to write about what they did, saw and learned during his administration. This is the Senate using a piddling, embarrassing leak to establish a precedent that its special counsel can use subpoena powers to determine who is talking to which journalist.

(Mr. Fleming has now decided not to enforce the subpoenas unless the Senate Rules Committee approves.)

I am dumbfounded at the reluctance of Senate Majority Leader )) George Mitchell to rise up and say, ''Stop this madness now!'' Where is Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who pontificated so pompously during the Thomas hearings about his devotion to the Constitution?

If the Senate won't quickly get rid of Mr. Fleming and renounce this fling into police-state tactics, the news media must become more aggressive in trying to get rid of the senators who authorized this bit of madness.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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