The Justice Department violated its own regulations when it secretly monitored more than 20 phone lines and seized thousands of reporter phone records following a 2012 government leak, the president of The Associated Press charged Wednesday.
“It was an intrusion by government officials that was so broad, so overreaching, so secretive that it violated the protective zone that the First Amendment provides journalists in the United States," Gary Pruitt said.
Last month, President Obama directed the Justice Department to review its procedures for leak investigations, following the revelations that AP reporters’ phone calls were watched following a story about a foiled al Qaeda plot in Yemen.
Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines State courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts MORE is due to report his findings by July 12.
In remarks to the National Press Club, Pruitt urged the Justice Department to adopt new regulations that would limit the agency’s scope in future leak investigations and bring additional oversight to the process.
“The DOJ operated as judge, jury and executioner in private, in secret,” Pruitt said, adding in another portion of his speech, “Beware the government that loves secrecy too much.”
Pruitt said the updated regulations should include provisions giving media outlets the opportunity to receive advance notice that their records are to be seized and a chance to be heard on the matter.
Pruitt said his reading of existing policies allow for such notice.
“If DOJ sees it differently, then the regulations should be strengthened to remove any doubt.”
The agency should allow for judicial review of its decisions to seize records and whether targets of the seizures should be informed, Pruitt said, arguing that the AP case amounted to “denying constitutional rights by executive fiat.”
He also called for the Justice Department to update its rules to reflect changes in the way information changes hands in the digital era, and should codify the Obama administration’s promise not to treat journalists as criminals in leak cases.
In a separate investigation, a warrant application approved by Holder named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator in the alleged leak of classified State Department information.
“No one in this country should ever be prosecuted for committing journalism,” Pruitt said.
He also called on Congress to pass legislation protecting reporters who refuse to identify their sources.