Phone Intercepts by U.S. Hurts News Flow, AP Chief Says

The U.S. Justice Department’s secret collection of phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors has thwarted its news gathering, AP Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said.

Sources are reluctant to talk to reporters after disclosures that the Justice Department obtained the records, without notifying the news agency, for an investigation into who leaked information about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen.

“Some of our longtime, trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren’t about national security,” Pruitt said today at a lunch sponsored by the National Press Club in Washington.

The monitoring was an “unprecedented intrusion” on First Amendment free-speech protections, Pruitt said. He called on the U.S. to strengthen rules protecting journalists, including by passing a federal shield law that would let reporters protect anonymous sources, and toughening the Justice Department guidelines to discourage the secret collection of records.

The Justice Department had also obtained a search warrant for e-mails and telephone records of a Fox News reporter as part of a separate investigation into a 2009 leak on North Korea’s nuclear program, the department said May 24 in a statement.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington on May 10 told the AP, which is owned by 1,400 U.S. newspapers, that prosecutors had obtained a subpoena for the telephone records of editors and reporters. The monitoring continued for 40 days, Pruitt said. U.S. investigators are focused on a leak of details about an intelligence operation in Yemen. A May 7, 2012, AP story reported details on the operation that foiled a plot to blow up an airliner about a year after the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Americans have the right to know that an attack was plotted and their government was able to stop it, Pruitt said.