The Justice Department has seized telephone records from reporters and editors at the Associated Press, sparking an angry outcry from the news service, lawmakers and the TV industry.
CNN reports that the government “secretly collected two months of telephone records for reporters and editors at The Associated Press, the news service disclosed Monday in an outraged letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
“The records included calls from several AP bureaus and the personal phone lines of several staffers, AP President Gary Pruitt wrote. Pruitt called the subpoenas a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into its reporting.”
Pruitt wrote: "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.”
The AP said the government has not indicated why it was collecting the phone records, according to CNN. But the story adds that the AP “noted that U.S. officials have said they were probing how details of a foiled bomb plot that targeted a U.S.-bound aircraft leaked in May 2012. The news agency said records from five reporters and an editor who worked on a story about the plot were among those collected, but it said none of the information the government has shared with it suggested agents listened in on any reporters’ calls.”
Lawmakers and television industry sources were among the first to respond to the probe.
Said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner: "The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation."
In a statement issued today by the Radio Television Digital News Association, RTDNA Chairman Vincent Duffy said: “This unprecedented invasion of privacy involving confidential information is a blatant violation of basic rights afforded by the First Amendment. This action is unwarranted and absolutely strikes at the heart of the press freedoms we cherish in the United States. These critical freedoms are protected by both the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and have clearly been thrust aside by the federal government through this action.”
RTDNA added that it is “working closely with other media groups to seek answers as to why the Justice Department took such a serious and, in our judgment, blatantly unconstitutional action toward an unknown end. Our efforts are directed toward reversing this assault on these basic and important freedoms.”
AP’s Pruitt noted that the subpoenas were disclosed to the agency Friday. “In all, federal agents collected records from more than 20 lines, including personal phones and AP phone numbers in New York; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington,” CNN reported.
Pruitt demanded in his letter to Holder that the Justice Department return all records it seized and destroy all copies, adding: "We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
CNN adds: “The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington responded that federal investigators seek phone records from news outlets only after making ‘every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means.’ It did not disclose the subject of the probe.”
The report quotes the U.S. Attorney’s Office saying: "We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. 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."
“CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the Obama administration ‘has been incredibly aggressive’ about prosecuting leakers, and there’s no privilege in federal law that allows reporters to protect their sources. But he said past administrations have avoided going that far,” CNN reports.
Said Toobin: "I have never heard of a subpoena this broad, It’s legal, as far as I can tell. The administration isn’t violating the First Amendment. But they are certainly doing more than has ever been done before in pursuing the private information of journalists. And we’ll see if there’s any political check on them, because there doesn’t appear to be any legal check on what they’re doing."
White House spokesman Jay Carney told the press Monday that the White House was unaware of the subpoenas.
Said Carney: "We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department.”