The Great Snitch Hunt : It's subpoena city as Senate probe ranges far, wide and wrong

"Gross, dangerous and destructive." Such were the words of a New York newspaper publisher describing a Senate investigator's latest move in a relentless search for the irrelevant. He left out dumb.

The publisher was speaking of the subpoenaing of phone records of two reporters who broke last fall's story of Prof. Anita Hill's sexual harassment charge against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The subpoena was the idea of Peter E. Fleming, hired by the Senate to root out the source or sources of the Hill-Thomas story. Fleming has also been asked to trace leaks from a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of relations between five senators and white-collar criminal Charles H. Keating Jr.

This effort comes while the Bush Administration is on the leak warpath: A Census Bureau demographer faces the sack because, in answering a reporter's questions, she dared to estimate the number of Iraqi war dead.

The path down which Fleming is now lurching can lead him to any sort of victory only by damaging the First Amendment right to publish news.

What makes this dumb is that no laws or even Senate rules were broken. The hunt is hurried along not in pursuit of justice but in quest of political vengeance. There is never good reason to risk damage to a constitutional right, but in this case there is not even a legal reason.

Reporters Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Timothy Phelps of Newsday both wrote stories about the Hill accusations and both have refused to answer questions about the case in Senate hearings. Now Fleming proposes to pore through phone records in phase two of his snitch hunt.

Ted Olson, attorney for Phelps and Newsday, had the right idea: "I think the Senate may want to consider if that is what they stand for."

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