TEXAS, May 14, 2013— In a letter (pdf) to Attorney General Eric Holder dated May 13, 2013, in response to what he called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press” (AP), Gary B. Pruitt, AP President and CEO, strongly objected to the tactics used by the Justice Department in secretly obtaining telephone toll records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists.
“The records that were secretly obtained cover a full two-month period in early 2012 and, at least as described in Mr. Machen’s letter, include all such records for, among other phone lines, an AP general phone number in New York City as well as AP bureaus in New York City, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Connecticut, and at the House of Representatives,” Mr. Pruitt wrote, “This action was taken without advance notice to AP or to any of the affected journalists, and even after the fact no notice has been sent to individual journalists whose home phones and cell phone records were seized by the Department.”
The US attorney’s office in Washington would not say why the seizure had been made, but responded that federal investigators seek phone records from news outlets only after making “every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means.”
“We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation,” the US attorney’s office said in a statement. “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.”
Although it did not disclose the subject of the probe, many believe the records were seized in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the office into who may have leaked information contained in an AP story dated May 7, 2012, detailing 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.
The story, which was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Golman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram, disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot that was to occur around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden. According to the AP, they delayed the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security.
Although the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement, the AP says it published the story when government officials said there was no longer a threat. According to the AP, the plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had “no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the US to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.”
In the highly-charged partisan atmosphere of Washington politics, stories such as these never go unnoticed; and this one has immediately raised questions among certain members of Congress.
“The First Amendment is first for a reason,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”
Although at this point there is no indication that the US attorney’s office has violated the First Amendment, the Administration seems to be distancing itself from the investigation. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday night that the White House was unaware of the subpoenas. “We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department,” Carney said.
Pruitt, in the meantime, has asked for “an immediate explanation as to why this extraordinary action was taken, and a description of the steps the Department will take to mitigate its impact on AP and its reporters.”
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