Swift reaction to what AP calls government 'intrusion' into its records

The Justice Department secretly seized two months of phone records from the Associated Press. Typically, news organizations are given advance notice, but this case was deemed an exception. 

Jon Elswick/AP
The screen on the phone console at the reception desk at The Associated Press's Washington bureau on Monday. The US Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of AP journalists in what the news cooperative's top executive called a 'massive and unprecedented intrusion' into how news organizations gather the news.

Journalists and free-press advocates reacted with outrage Monday after the Associated Press reported the US Department of Justice had secretly seized two months of the organization’s phone records, which the AP called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.” 

Lawyers for the AP received a letter Friday from US Attorney Ronald Machen, notifying the not-for-profit journalism organization that the Justice Department used subpoenas to obtain April and May 2012 phone records from its New York; Washington, D.C.; and Hartford, Conn., offices.

“What is stunning is the breadth of the seizure!” Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren said in an e-mail to Politico, referring to the 20 phone lines used by more than 100 reporters over the two-month period. “That doesn’t sound like a criminal investigation, that sounds like a dragnet to intimidate the media.”

The letter did not specify why the department wanted the phone records, but AP suggested that it is related to a May 7, 2012, story that detailed a Central Intelligence Agency operation to stop an airline bomb plot in Yemen. The AP held the story at the request of the government until concerns over the story’s national-security impact had been allayed. But during a congressional hearing in February, CIA Director John Brennan said the story was an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”

The case represents “a new extreme” for government investigations into national-security information leaks to the media, said the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a blog post. The Obama administration has brought six cases against people suspected of leaking classified information to the media, more than all previous administrations combined, the AP reports.

The Justice Department has strict regulations for acquiring phone records from news organizations. A subpoena can be used only after “all reasonable attempts” have been made to gather the same information from different sources, and the US attorney general must sign off on the subpoena. Typically, news organizations are given advance notice that the government wants its records, and they can challenge the subpoena in court. But the Justice Department said this case is an exception to the rule.

“We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation,” said William Miller, a spokesman for Mr. Machen.

“Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws,” Mr. Miller added.

But critics of the case say they are troubled by the broader implications of the government’s actions – that it could intimidate journalists into not reporting accounts of government misconduct.

“The attorney general must explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office.

“This very chilling, this is very chilling,” CNN’s John King said Monday, Politico reported. “The government gets angry about leaks of classified information. I understand that, and they have ways to investigate them. But did they cross a line here?... When this happens, however it happens, it sends a chilling message from the government to people in our business, and the AP, I think, is justifiably outraged.”

Gary Pruitt, AP president and chief executive officer, said that the government overstepped its limits, demanding the phone records be returned and all copies be destroyed.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Mr. Pruitt said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

• Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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