On Monday The Associated Press claimed that AP offices and reporters were secretly seized by the U.S. government for a two-month period in 2012, describing the acts as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news-gathering operations.
More than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines were obtained by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Five reporters and an editor involved in that story were among those whose phone numbers were obtained by the government, the AP said.
The seized phone records were for April and May of 2012 and AP bureaus in New York, Hartford and Washington were among those affected, as well as an AP phone at the U.S. House of Representatives press gallery, the AP said.
AP president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday that states:
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.
We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.
Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union called the breadth of the seizure “an unacceptable abuse of power.”
An Associated Press story on the matter says the government has not given any explanation why the phone records were seized.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, which notified the AP of the seizure, issued a statement on Monday saying it was “careful and deliberative” when dealing with issues around freedom of the press.
“We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations,” the office said.
The development represents the latest collision of news organizations and federal investigators over government efforts to prevent the disclosure of national security information, and it comes against a backdrop of an aggressive policy by the Obama administration to rein in leaks.
Under President Obama, six current and former government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases so far, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined, writes The NY Times.
The story also notes that U.S. officials have previously said the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information for an AP story in May, 2012, about a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled an al-Qaida bomb plot.
CIA director John Brennan noted that the FBI had questioned him about whether he was AP’s source, which he denied. He called the release of the information to the media about the terror plot an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”
The AP acknowledged then that it had agreed with the White House and CIA requests “not to publish” its story “immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.”
But “once officials said those concerns were allayed,” the news organization went ahead with its story rather than wait for the Obama administration’s official announcement.
Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual and largely unprecedented, reports the Guardian.
The Newspaper Association of America issued a statement saying: “Today we learned of the Justice Department’s unprecedented wholesale seizure of confidential telephone records from the Associated Press.
“These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”