May 14 (Bloomberg) -- Media groups and government watchdogs said the U.S. Justice Department interfered with press freedom when it secretly collected telephone records from Associated Press reporters and editors over a two-month period last year.
The AP disclosed the government’s action in a letter yesterday to Attorney General Eric Holder from Gary Pruitt, the news service’s president and chief executive officer. Pruitt called the collection of phone records at four locations used by reporters a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” of AP’s right to gather news under the U.S. Constitution.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt said in his letter objecting to the department’s action.
The disclosure marked a new flashpoint between President Barack Obama’s administration and news organizations over the unauthorized release of national-security information. Under Holder, the Justice Department has prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined.
The Obama administration has brought indictments against five government workers for leaking information. The Defense Department is pursuing a sixth case against Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of sending classified documents to the WikiLeaks website.
The AP said the review of its journalists’ phone records may be related to a federal probe into a May 7, 2012, news report about an intelligence operation in Yemen that foiled a plot to blow up an airliner around the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Justice Department didn’t specify why it collected the records, the AP said.
Federal officials have said the U.S. attorney in Washington is investigating who might have leaked information for the AP story. Five reporters and an editor who worked on the terror story were among those individuals whose phone records for April and May 2012 were accessed, the news service said yesterday.
“This is really a disturbing affront to a free press,” Arnie Robbins, executive director of the American Society of News Editors in Columbia, Missouri, said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s also troubling because it is consistent with perhaps the most aggressive administration ever against reporters doing their jobs.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney directed questions about the AP phone records to the Justice Department. “We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations,” he said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
The Justice Department referred queries to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. Bill Miller, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, didn’t address the specifics of AP’s complaints.
“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,” Miller said in a statement.
The office takes seriously its “obligations to follow all applicable laws,” he said.
The AP said telephone toll records for more than 20 phone lines were secretly obtained over the two-month period. Bureaus in New York City, Washington, Hartford, Connecticut, and at the U.S. House of Representatives were targeted, Pruitt said.
The AP said the Justice Department obtained records indicating outgoing calls for the office and personal telephone numbers of individual reporters, as well as general office numbers at the four bureaus. More than 100 journalists work in the offices targeted by the department, the news service said.
“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,” Pruit said in his letter.
Justice Department regulations say the attorney general’s authorization is “normally required” for subpoenas for media records in instances where the department hadn’t gotten prior approval from the news outlet. The Justice Department hasn’t said if it sought approval from a judge or a grand jury before obtaining the AP phone records.
“The breadth of the government’s secret intrusion into AP and the failure of the government to give AP any notice, thus barring it from seeking judicial review, are deeply disturbing,” said Floyd Abrams, a New York-based attorney specializing in First Amendment cases. “There is no reason why this could not and should not have been put before a judge for resolution. Taken as a whole, it reflects a troubling indifference to the role of the press in a free society.”
Senator Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called on the Obama administration to explain whether rules on subpoenas affecting press freedoms were followed, according to an e-mailed statement. Grassley, of Iowa, said the administration needs “to be transparent with its rationale for such a sweeping intrusion.”
Obama administration officials have signaled their belief that the publication last year of AP’s account about the thwarted terror plot was damaging to national security.
John Brennan, the director of the CIA, mentioned the story during his nomination hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 7.
“There was a lot of information that came out immediately after the AP broke that story,” Brennan said. “Unfortunately, there was a hemorrhaging of information and leaks.”
News of the Justice Department investigation of AP’s phone records emerged with the Obama administration under criticism after the Internal Revenue Service said it targeted groups linked to the anti-tax Tea Party movement for special review of their tax status. Obama called the IRS’s action “outrageous” in a press conference yesterday.
A chief critic of the IRS’s action, Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the Justice Department’s monitoring of AP telephone records “disturbing.”
“Top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don’t have to answer to anyone,” Issa said in a statement.
Government watchdog groups including the Project on Government Oversight in Washington have faulted the Justice Department for prosecuting whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act, a law typically reserved for acts of treason.
In the most recent case to be resolved, former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Kiriakou was sentenced in January to 30 months in prison for revealing secret information to journalists about two other CIA agents.
Kiriakou, who helped capture alleged al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, was the first person associated with the spy agency to acknowledge the use of waterboarding on terrorism suspects, according to his attorneys.
Obama and the Justice Department have defended the pursuit of those cases on national-security grounds.
The seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records is “Nixonian,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Holder “has trampled a line meant to protect our free and independent press.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was “troubled” by the Justice Department’s collection of AP phone records.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information -- especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” Leahy said in an e-mailed statement.
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