AP: Justice Department seizure of phone records an unprecedented intrusion
Obama administration took records in apparent effort to track down source who disclosed alleged Yemen terrorist plot story
Ewen MacAskill in Washington – The Guardian, Tuesday 14 May 2013
The Obama administration has opened up a new front in its battle against media freedom by seizing phone records from the offices of the Associated Press news agency in what appeared to be an effort to track down the source who disclosed an alleged Yemen terrorist plot story.
The US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia confirmed on Monday that subpoenas had been issued for phone records. It said it valued press freedom but it had to balance this against the public interest.
AP revealed on Monday that the justice department, without informing the organisation in advance, had obtained two months’ worth of phone records of calls made by reporters and editors.
Lawyers for AP said the records, which the justice department appears to have obtained from the phone companies earlier this year, listed every call made by about 100 reporters from AP’s main offices in New York, Washington and Hartford, Connecticut, and from its office in the House of Representatives press gallery between April and May last year. The justice department informed AP last Friday. AP described it as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering operations.
The attorney’s office refused to say why the seizure had been made but it is almost certainly in relation to an AP exclusive report on 7 May last year in which it reported the CIA had stopped a plot by an al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen to destroy a US-bound airliner.
AP at the time agreed to White House and CIA requests to hold back publication because they said an intelligence operation was still under way. After being satisfied that these concerns had been met, AP published on the Monday, ignoring a request from the Obama administration to wait until Tuesday for the official announcement.
The justice department has since launched an investigation into the leak. The phone records of five of the reporters plus an editor involved in the Yemen story were among those taken.
AP’s president and chief executive officer, Gary Pruitt, sent a letter of protest to the attorney-general, Eric Holder. “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.
He described it as “serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news”.
The ACLU last night condemned the DOJ’s acts as “press intimidation” and said it constitutes “an unacceptable abuse of power”. The Electronic Frontier Foundation denounced it as “a terrible blow against the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to investigate and report the news”. The New York Times’ Editorial Page Editor Andy Rosenthal called the DOJ’s actions “outrageous” while Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said they were “shocking” and “disturbing”. Even Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: “I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”
Numerous media reports convincingly speculated that the DOJ’s actions arise out of a 2012 AP article that contained leaked information about CIA activity in Yemen, and the DOJ is motivated, in part, by a desire to uncover the identity of AP’s sources. That 2012 AP story revealed that the CIA was able to “thwart” a planned bombing by the al-Qaida “affiliate” in that country of a US jetliner. AP had learned of the CIA actions a week earlier but “agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.” AP revealed little that the US government itself was not planning to reveal and that would not have been obvious once the plot was successfully thwarted, as it explained in its story: “once those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.”
The legality of the DOJ’s actions is impossible to assess because it is not even known what legal authority it claims nor the legal process it invoked to obtain these records. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the DOJ’s power to obtain phone records is, as I’ve detailed many times, dangerously broad.
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