NEW YORK – The New York Times sued Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday, seeking to block the Justice Department from obtaining records of telephone calls between two veteran journalists and their confidential sources.
The lawsuit said the Justice Department (search) was "on the verge" of getting records as part of a probe aimed at learning the identity of government employees who may have provided information to the newspaper. It asked a judge to intervene.
The paper said the government intends to get the records, which reflect confidential communications between the journalists Philip Shenon (search) and Judith Miller (search) and their sources, from third parties unlikely to be interested in challenging its authority.
The lawsuit said the Justice Department has advised the Times that it plans to obtain records of all telephone calls by Shenon and Miller for 20 days in the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The lawsuit said the scope of the government's demand for telephone records meant that the records would expose the identities of dozens of confidential sources used by the reporters for an array of articles about Sept. 11, the government's handling of continued threats from Al Qaeda and the war in Iraq.
A telephone message left with a government spokeswoman for comment was not immediately returned Tuesday.
George Freeman, a lawyer for the Times, said most of the sources had no connection to the government's probe.
"We are very troubled at this brazen intrusion into our relationship with our sources, which is unconstitutional and endangers our free press," he said.
Floyd Abrams (search), the attorney who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, said it was "a very dangerous and unprecedented notion" for the Justice Department to seek telephone records from third parties rather than the Times.
"In this case, we're talking about the potential compromising of literally dozens of sources because telephone records relate to an enormous array of stories," he said. "It would threaten the ability of all journalists to promise confidentiality to their sources."
Shenon was one of two Times reporters sent into combat with U.S. troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Since the fall of 2001, he has reported on homeland security, terrorism and the work of the Sept. 11 commission.
Miller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her January 2001 series on Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, has reported extensively for the Times on national security issues, especially terrorism, the Middle East and weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (search), a Chicago special prosecutor appointed to investigate government leaks, asked the Times in August 2002 and again in July to produce Shenon and Miller for interviews and to produce records of their calls, the lawsuit said.
He threatened to obtain telephone records from third parties if the Times did not cooperate, the suit said. In a letter dated Friday, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said the Justice Department had decided it was "now obliged to proceed" to obtain the records, the lawsuit said.