Witch Hunt in the Senate

March 21, 1992

Congress is setting itself up for another fall by attempting to tap the telephone secrets of reporters who broke the story of Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas.

Reporters Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Timothy M. Phelps of Newsday, who first publicized Ms. Hill's charges, have both told Senate investigators they won't name their sources. To do so, they claim, would undercut their ability to gather news from informants who do not wish their identity made public. Maintaining the confidentiality of news sources is essential to carrying out their job for most working journalists.

But now, having failed to persuade the journalists to cooperate in his investigation, the special prosecutor appointed to look into the disclosures has subpoenaed telephone company records of the reporters' home and business calls in an effort to identify everyone who talked to them around the time Ms. Hill's charges became known. The reporters rightly claim the tactic smacks of police state intimidation and represents a threat to the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.

In the past, telephone companies generally have taken a pliant attitude toward such requests. The reporters' lawyers will and should try to block the order on the grounds that it could lead to a massive sifting by a political entity through confidential private records, most or all of which have nothing to do with the Anita Hill leak. Even if there were no First Amendment implications, this is exactly the sort of search the Fourth Amendment was created to protect against.

The Senate invited the ignominy heaped on it by its own incompetence during the Thomas hearings. When forced to reconvene the extraordinary session by the Totenberg and Phelps reports, some Judiciary Committee members vowed to make the press pay for their embarrassment in failing to detect a leak that must have come from within their own entourage. But it wasn't the reporters' fault the senators looked bad. And they will look even worse if they persist in a witch hunt against those who made public information the American people had a right to know when Congress was bent on covering it up.

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