It's hard to think of any justification for the Justice Department to have snatched up thousands of phone records from the Associated Press, but there had better be a forthright explanation coming.
From Attorney General Eric Holder, and from President Barack Obama, who should probably be dusting off rsums of Holder's potential replacements.
This is government intrusion at a level that goes far beyond the issue of press protections. If federal law enforcement feels empowered to rifle through journalists' private phone records, ostensibly looking for evidence of a government leak, then nothing would restrain similar action against other citizens.
And that's not a comforting feeling in a nation whose bedrock principles have been tested and stressed by new debates over the balance between security and liberty. The Patriot Act. Secret federal courts. Endless detentions of American citizens who are deemed - outside a court of law - to be "enemies." None of it is consistent with the most basic notions of freedom or the proper limitations on government.
The question now has to be whether a new culture of hyper-aggressive attention to national security is green-lighting constitutionally spurious behavior, even at the top levels of our government.
A few things to keep in mind as the investigation unfolds here: This kind of "drag-netting" is legal, but requires a subpoena. And where news organizations are involved, federal regulations also require that the attorney general sign off on it. Holder has a lot to answer for, one way or another. If he signed off on it, why? If - and right now this is unimaginable - he didn't, how on earth did it happen?
It's also true that this kind of broad sweep - a fishing expedition that reportedly included personal phones of AP staffers - is supposed to have a specific focus that justifies the extraordinary breadth of the records searched. Holder confirmed Tuesday that investigators were searching for the source of a "serious leak" of information that led to reports about a failed bombing attempt in Yemen. But it would seem that unless this action halted an emergent situation - like a pending terrorist attack - there's an important incongruity.
This issue surfaces alongside other indications that the Obama administration hasn't practiced the kind of care you would expect from those who wield tremendous government power. The issue with IRS officials singling out conservative groups for extra nonprofit scrutiny goes part and parcel with the Justice Department sweep of AP phone records.
Of course, some conservatives have leapt to an illogical conclusion: that Obama is President Richard Nixon, whose abuse of government power was his undoing.
That's absurd, but so would any suggestion that these transgressions don't warrant serious inquiry, and serious consequences for those guilty of over-stepping their bounds.
Congress will be doing its job (welcome back to work, folks) by pursuing that inquiry. Meanwhile, the Obama administration needs to be forthcoming and cooperative, and ought to do some bigger soul-searching about the proper bounds and conduct of our federal government.