The U.S. Department of Justice secretly obtained two months worth of telephone records from Associated Press reporters and editors, the news service announced on Monday:
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 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
AP was notified of the seizure on Friday in a letter from the DOJ, which did not provide an explaination for its actions. It is suspected, however, that the seizures were part of an investigation into leaked information regarding a foiled terror plot in Yemen involving the CIA, which the AP reported on in May 2012. AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt said the government’s actions were unacceptable, and demanded the phone records be returned and all copies destroyed.
“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,” he said.
The DOJ issued the following statement in response:
We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations. 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. 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 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.
Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.