WASHINGTON - In virtual lockstep on topics such as guns, God and limited government, Southern Republicans in the Senate differ on how to balance national security interests with First Amendment protections.
Last week, lawmakers from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere expressed a range of opinions on the Department of Justice's widespread seizure of telephone records of Associated Press journalists. It's believed that Justice subpoenaed the records in hopes of pinpointing who gave the AP information about a foiled Yemen-based terror plot.
Some Republicans are quick to condemn the Justice Department as privacy invaders. But last year, those same legislators encouraged the Obama administration to intensify its investigation into press leaks.
In an interview, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., criticized Obama's Justice Department, describing "a government action chilling free speech."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., echoed Alexander in a way that hasn't happened lately on a major vote. The men took opposite sides on the Internet sales tax issue (Alexander for, Paul against), but joined forces in support of a free press.
"I think if you're going to get records of the media, you ought to ask a judge for a warrant," Paul said in an interview.
"I was startled when I read that [the seizure] appears to have reached 100 AP reporters," Alexander said. "That sounds to me like something gone awry."
When prompted, however, Paul and Alexander acknowledged joining 27 other GOP senators last year in co-sponsoring a resolution that urged Obama to appoint an outside special counsel to aggressively explore leaks.
The resolution, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not advance. But Obama adopted its sentiments anyway, appointing special counsel to dig into the leaks.
"It's different, the press receiving stuff," Paul said. "I think the people giving [the information to the press] are really breaking the law and ought to go to jail for it."
Both Georgia senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, also signed on to the resolution advocating stronger action.
Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended Justice's actions last week, breaking from Republicans such as Alexander, Paul and others who criticized the administration as the scandal developed.
"The Justice Department has never been aggressive in their prosecution of leaks of national security issues," Chambliss said, "and I'm not about to criticize them for undertaking the right measures ... to get all the information they can to try to figure out who [leaked] this."
Last week the White House played damage control, pushing U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to introduce a federal shield law that would better protect reporters from disclosing confidential sources and in many cases would allow them to ask a judge to quash a subpoena.
"There have been a number of serious leaks that absolutely must be investigated," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "But from the very limited information we have, the scope of records in this instance raises concerns and may have a chilling effect."
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., signaled opposition to blanket press protections.
"We've got foreign news media here, too, such as Al Jazeera and others that are operating here," Sessions told Politico. "If you do that, you create a conduit to be able to move information from terrorists into the public domain or otherwise that can't be justified."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.