Lawmakers from both parties sharply questioned the Justice Department over its reported effort to secretly obtain two months of phone records from Associated Press journalists, with House Speaker John Boehner’s office saying “they better have a damned good explanation.”
The AP disclosed the department’s actions Monday afternoon, revealing that the news service had recently learned the department obtained records listing outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of AP reporters and various AP offices. 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.
Concern about what the AP’s top executive called an “unprecedented intrusion” quickly spanned party lines.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said he’s “very troubled” by the allegations.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information -- especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources. 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,” Leahy said in a statement.
The AP also reported that the Justice Department got records for the main AP number in the House of Representatives press gallery. One congressional source told Fox News this allegation in particular “is not sitting too well” with congressional leadership.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he plans to ask Attorney General Eric Holder “pointed questions” on the issue at a hearing Wednesday.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel also had pointed words for the administration.
“The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation,” he said.
The allegations come on the heels of a pair of major controversies for the Obama administration. Fresh testimony and newly released documents last week raised questions about whether top administration officials deliberately distorted the details of the Benghazi attack as they first began providing details to the public last September. Then the IRS acknowledged Friday that it singled out conservative groups like the Tea Party for additional scrutiny as it screened applications for tax-exempt status.
House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy described the AP claims as another blemish for the administration.
"I am deeply concerned by numerous reports of misconduct by the administration, from (whistle-blower) testimony regarding Benghazi to the Internal Revenue Service targeting groups based on political ideology and now the Department of Justice monitoring journalists with the Associated Press,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney referred questions on the issue to the Justice Department, claiming the White House was not involved.
“Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP. We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department. Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice,” he said.
Rules published by the Justice Department require that subpoenas of records of news organizations must be personally approved by the attorney general, but it was not known if that happened in this case. The letter notifying AP that its phone records had been obtained through subpoenas was sent Friday by Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.
William Miller, a spokesman for Machen, said Monday that in general the U.S. attorney follows "all applicable laws, federal regulations and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations." But he would not address questions about the specifics of the AP records. "We do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations," Miller said in an email.
According to the AP, it was not clear if the records obtained also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
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.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
"There can be no possible justification for such an over-broad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's news gathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt said.
The government would not say why it sought the records. Officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of 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.
In testimony in February, CIA Director John Brennan noted that the FBI had questioned him about whether he was AP's source, which he denied. He called the release of the information to the media about the terror plot an "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."
Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual.
In the letter notifying the AP, which was received Friday, the Justice Department offered no explanation for the seizure, according to Pruitt's letter and attorneys for the AP. The records were presumably obtained from phone companies earlier this year although the government letter did not explain that. None of the information provided by the government to the AP suggested the actual phone conversations were monitored.
Among those whose phone numbers were obtained were five reporters and an editor who were involved in the May 7, 2012, story.
The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of providing classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the use of subpoenas for a broad swath of records has a chilling effect both on journalists and whistle-blowers who want to reveal government wrongdoing. "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," said Laura Murphy, the director of ACLU's Washington legislative office.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and the Associated Press contributed to this report.