The Senate's loose cannon

March 20, 1992

Do Americans really want Congress rummaging around in citizens' private phone calls? That's what a Senate special prosecutor seems to think. Someone needs to get hold of this loose cannon before it blows up in the senators' faces -- again.

The flap stems from reports last year by Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Timothy Phelps of Newsday of Anita Hill's charge of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas. The Totenberg and Phelps stories prompted an extraordinary three-day Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that almost derailed Judge Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation. Afterward, his supporters vowed revenge.

Special prosecutor Peter E. Fleming was appointed to examine the unauthorized disclosure but both Ms. Totenberg and Mr. Phelps refused to cooperate. The reporters maintained that it would compromise their ability to gather news if they revealed sources whose information was given on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Fleming then subpoenaed the telephone company records of the journalists' home and business calls.

This is an insidious tactic the reporters rightly liken to police state intimidation. It is also, as Newsday publisher Robert M. Johnson complained, "a gross, dangerous and destructive invasion of the reporting process and an assault on all Americans who believed that they were entitled to the information we reported."

The American people deserved to know the facts of the Thomas nomination. The hearings were humiliating for Congress in part because they revealed senators knew about Ms. Hill's charges and dismissed them as irrelevant. But reporters can't be blamed for lawmakers' bad judgment -- or for bringing to light information Congress had no business trying to cover up.

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