The head of The Associated Press blasted the Justice Department on Wednesday over its seizure of journalists' phone records, saying the move effectively could give dictatorships cover to harass their own media.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt told a luncheon gathering of journalists and others that the Justice Department even violated its own rules when it secretly seized records for thousands of phone calls at the AP. He said the department failed to notify AP in advance of the subpoena, as normally required. While department rules say a delay in notification is justified if needed to protect the integrity of its investigation, Pruitt said that justification was unfathomable in this case.
He went on to blast the department's move as "overly broad" and claimed the department "acted as judge, jury and executioner in private, in secret."
And he questioned whether it could serve to enable authoritarian governments to crack down in their own countries.
"The DOJ's actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media," he said, arguing other countries could simply say "the U.S. does it too."
The records of more than 20 phone lines assigned to the AP and its reporters and editors were obtained in secret by the department in April and May 2012 as the Obama administration tried to find out who leaked information to the AP for a story about a foiled plot in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner. The Justice Department informed the AP of the seizure last month.
The department, earlier, had also seized phone records for Fox News lines and seized the emails for Fox News reporter James Rosen, as part of a separate leak probe. Pruitt, a former First Amendment lawyer, touched on that case, saying both raise "substantial issues."
Pruitt, speaking at The National Press Club, said the seizure has stifled trusted sources not just for AP reporters but for other news organizations, too. In one instance, he said, AP journalists could not get a law enforcement official to confirm a detail that had been reported elsewhere. Reporters from other news organizations, he said, have personally told him that their sources have felt intimidated by what he called DOJ's aggressive seizure.
He said the Justice Department has assured the AP that the seized phone records have been "walled off and protected and used for no other purpose than the leak investigation." But he said that doesn't excuse what the department did. "We need to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
Attorney General Eric Holder last month defended the secret gathering of AP phone records, saying that a serious national security leak required it.
His deputy attorney general, James Cole, has said such disclosures risk lives and cause grave harm to the security of Americans. Cole has said that the records subpoena was narrowly drawn, consistent with department policy, and that the government does not have to inform a media outlet of a subpoena if it would threaten the leak investigation.
More recently, Holder acknowledged that a better balance needs to be struck between press freedoms and keeping national secrets safe. He has been meeting with the news media as the department reviews how it treats the media when it investigates national security leaks. The discussions were ordered by President Obama, who has set a July 12 deadline for Holder to recommend any changes to the department's procedures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.