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Attorney General Eric Holder
Associated Press/Photo by Molly Riley
Attorney General Eric Holder

Obama administration secretly seized AP phone records

DOJ AP Scandal

WORLD normally does not post articles directly from the Associated Press, given the news agency’s ideological bias, but we are publishing this story unedited because the AP itself is the subject, and the story’s tone and substance are significant in themselves: While AP journalists have been heavily pro-Obama, this new incident, along with growing concern about the Libyan cover-up, suggests the marriage of press and state may be breaking up.  —Marvin Olasky

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.

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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-Qaeda plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

In testimony in February, 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.”

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.

In the letter notifying the AP received Friday, the Justice Department offered no explanation for the seizure, according to Pruitt’s letter and attorneys for the AP. The records were presumably obtained from phone companies earlier this year although the government letter did not explain that. None of the information provided by the government to the AP suggested the actual phone conversations were monitored.

Among those whose phone numbers were obtained were five reporters and an editor who were involved in the May 7, 2012 story.

The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of providing classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined.

Justice Department published rules require that subpoenas of records from news organizations must be personally approved by the attorney general but it was not known if that happened in this case. The letter notifying AP that its phone records had been obtained though subpoenas was sent Friday by Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.

William Miller, a spokesman for Machen, said Monday that in general the U.S. attorney follows “all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations” but he would not address questions about the specifics of the AP records. “We do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations,” Miller said in an email.

© 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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