NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — 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, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP 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 the calls.
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 a hundred journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has spoken out about his anger and concerns over the seizures.
“I am deeply concerned by these reports that the federal government is apparently sweeping information collection from the Associated Press bureaus including Hartford and I’m concerned that this investigative action may fail to meet the government’s high burden. It has a very high burden when it seizes information from the press under its own regulations as well as the law, Constitutional law, which applies here,” Blumenthal told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott.
Journalists follow a code never to reveal a source. Blumenthal said by the DOJ seizing phone records, that code could be compromised.
“Under the Department of Justice’s own rules, it has to explore every other option and this kind of collection of information by the taking of telephone records is a very, very last resort,” Blumenthal told Scott. “The government has a high burden when there’s invasion of privacy and chilling effects on First Amendment rights of the press.”
“The chilling effect on sources is especially involved in this interest,” Blumenthal told Scott.
The senator added he has not heard back from the DOJ on his request for information as to why the records were seized.
“So far, there is no adequate explanation and I believe the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, and I sit on it, has an obligation also to make sure that the facts are forthcoming,” Blumenthal said. “The nation needs to know what justification there is for so sweeping and potentially intrusive and even invasive a collection of information.”
Blumenthal said he’s seeking to find out what the DOJ’s reason was for the investigation, whether other avenues were explored prior to the data seizure, why there was no notice of the action and why the seizures of phone records was so broad.
Blumenthal said five reporters and an editor were subject to the seizure involving more than 20 phone lines.
“The apparently sweeping nature of this taking of information is deeply troubling,” Blumenthal told Scott.
Republican lawmakers have also voiced anger over the seizure of records.
Attorney General Eric Holder says he played no direct role in the Justice Department’s secret review of Associated Press phone records. But Holder says it was part of an investigation into what he termed a grave national security leak.
Holder says he had removed himself from the matter because of congressional testimony he had given and his dealings with the news media.
Holder says officials had been looking into what he calls “a very serious leak” that “put the American people at risk.” He has assigned Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole to handle the phone records case.
The government would not say why it sought the records. AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt sent a letter of protest Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder.
In the letter, 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. 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, which was 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.
The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
The plot was significant both because of its seriousness and also because the White House previously had told the public it had “no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden’s death.”
The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.
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