Conservatives are not often fierce defenders of the media. But Monday’s news that the Justice Department obtained phone records for several Associated Press reporters as part of a national security leak probe raised a furor on the right, causing numerous Republicans to harshly criticize the Obama administration. While some may have genuine concerns about First Amendment protections, the right’s response also spotlighted an emerging Republican critique of Barack Obama as a Big Brother-style tyrant in charge of a power-abusing surveillance state.
Before the AP news broke, conservatives were already up in arms over word that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for additional scrutiny, as well as new details about the controversial editing of talking points about last September’s terror attacks in Benghazi. Taken together, Republicans said the stories paint a picture of an administration willing to monitor and even menace its opponents and critics. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa linked all three DC scandals in a statement to reporters, charging that “top Obama Administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law.”
But the AP phone records produced a particularly surprising response. While Obama’s ardent prosecution of national security leaks has been well-documented in past years, particularly on the civil liberties left, it’s a relatively new cause for mainstream Republicans. “Whether it is secretly targeting patriotic Americans participating in the electoral progress or reporters exercising their First Amendment rights, these new revelations suggest a pattern of intimidation by the Obama Administration,” Doug Heye, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said in a statement to TIME. “The First Amendment is first for a reason,” added Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”
The explanation might be, in part, the angry cries from Republican members of Congress over the Associated Press reporting that appears to have triggered the Justice Department probe. In May 2012, the AP described how a double agent had infiltrated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and neutralized a plot to bomb an airliner. Multiple Republicans insisted at the time that the leak might constitute a criminal case and demanded a tough FBI investigation.
Their anger was largely directed at the alleged leakers, unlike the cries of “treason” directed at the New York Times when the paper published sensitive information about Bush-era anti-terror surveillance. Even so, conservatives are now in the odd position of implicitly defending the media’s rights against the imperative of national security secrecy, a cause that didn’t interest them much when the FBI sought media phone records during the Bush years.
That position is growing less and less odd, however, as the GOP matures into a post-Bush identity on civil liberty and foreign policy. Some of the GOP’s fastest-rising stars, including Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, have spoken forcefully against the expansion of executive power that is largely a byproduct of the Bush years. In March, Paul led a 13-hour filibuster against John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, charging that Obama was claiming a dangerous degree of authority to order unmanned drone strikes and blocking efforts to make the controversial drone program more transparent. Cruz has railed against Obama’s efforts to expand executive power, including the Justice Department’s recent failed legal push to attach GPS devices to vehicles without a warrant.
(TIME MAGAZINE: The Rise of Rand Paul)
The criticism has clearly stung the president, who found himself explaining his drone policies to his own supporters. “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,” he told Democratic senators, according to Politico. But now Cheney himself is piling on, accusing Obama of a cover-up in Benghazi. “They lied,” the former vice president — who was often accused by Democrats of bending the truth on national security matters — told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday night.
Republicans are painting a cartoon image that won’t stick, Obama’s allies insist. “It’s absurd and not remotely believable unless you’re a conspiracy theorist or one of the 39% of voters who think Benghazi is the biggest political scandal in American history but don’t know where it is,” former Obama national security spokesman Tommy Vietor told TIME. “This is one of those ridiculous theories fringe political groups cook up to vent their anger that just has no basis in reality. No one is alleging Obama directed the IRS to do what it did.”
But nothing unites a divided party like going on the attack. And for a GOP still defining its post-2012 identity, the message that Barack Obama is a secretive, menacing tyrant is proving to be one that its various factions can agree upon.