WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.
The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of calls.
In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. 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," Pruitt said.
The government would not say why it sought the records. U.S. officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
OTG statement on revelation of DOJ seizure of AP phone records:
An Unconscionable Breach
We recognize the necessity for the government to protect properly classified information and to ensure that information that would clearly cause harm to our national security is not incautiously released. However, the revelation today that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press is deeply disturbing. Seizing the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines exceeds anything that could be justified by any specific investigation of disclosures of classified information to the media.
The Justice Department has laid out strict rules for efforts to get phone records from news organization: a subpoena can only be considered after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the same information from other sources; and a subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period.” In this instance, the government, in its letter to the AP, cited an exemption that holds that prior notification can be waived if such notice might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation." According to AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt's letter and attorneys for the AP, though, the Justice Department offered no explanation for the seizure in its letter to the AP.
We find this unconscionable. We join the AP in its demand for the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
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