By Brendan Sasso and Jordy Yager - 05/13/13 10:42 PM EDT
Federal prosecutors secretly obtained two months' worth of telephone records of Associated Press journalists in what the news agency described Monday as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”
The Justice Department notified the AP on Friday that it had subpoenaed the records, which included more than 20 office, cellphone and home phone lines. The lines include the general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.
The government did not reveal why it seized the records, but the AP noted that federal officials have previously said they were investigating who had leaked information to the news service about a foiled terror plot in 2012. An AP story in May 2012 included details about a CIA operation in Yemen targeting al Qaeda operatives.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the action “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
Republicans were quick to criticize the Department of Justice (DOJ), saying that the invasion of privacy of a news outlet was just the latest example of an administration rife with problems. News of the AP probe broke as the White House is already fending off criticism of its handling of last year's attacks on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative and Tea Party groups.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called the DOJ subpoena “very disturbing” and said he expected to team up with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to probe the issue further.
“If this question went to the Attorney General then he’s responsible and he should be held accountable for what I think is wrong,” Issa said on CNN. “On the other hand, if it didn’t go to him, the question is: when is the Justice Department going to take responsibility for what it does?
“There are serious problems at DOJ, this is just the latest one.”
Department policy requires that the attorney general sign off on all requests for reporter phone records. It is unclear whether Attorney General Eric Holder signed off in this case.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice budget, said the department’s move was reminiscent of the wiretapping authorized by former President Nixon’s administration.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Wolf in an interview with The Hill after news of the story broke. “It kind of reminds you of the mid-70s.”
“It is the arrogance of power and paranoia. I think it’s shocking. It reminds me of the Nixon days. If they can do it to the AP, they can do to any news service in the country.”
Criticism also came from the left.
“The media’s purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance," Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Office, said in a statement. "The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again.”
The AP's Pruitt sent a letter on Monday to Holder protesting the seizure of records, demanding that the government return the call records to the AP and destroy its copies.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt 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.”
Federal regulations require that subpoenas for a reporter's phone records be as “narrowly drawn as possible.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney referred questions about the probe to the Justice Department.
In a statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia said it takes its legal obligations and department policies seriously when subpoenaing media phone records.
“Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media,” the office said. “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,” it said.
The FBI revealed in 2008 that it had subpoenaed the phone records of New York Times and Washington Post reporters in Indonesia as part of a terrorism investigation. The agency apologized for the incident, saying it failed to follow department policies.
Goodlatte said he planned to ask Holder “pointed questions” about the AP records on Wednesday when the attorney general is slated to testify during a general Judiciary oversight hearing.
“Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning,” said Goodlatte in a statement.
“The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday’s oversight hearing,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also said he would be probing the issue further and looking into whether the government may have overstepped its bounds.
"The burden is always on the government when they go after private information – especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources," said Leahy in a statement. "I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”
—This story was posted at 5:10 p.m. and updated at 6:42 p.m.