The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.
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.
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 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," 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 White House on Monday said that other than press reports it had no knowledge of Justice Department attempts to seek AP phone records.
"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department," spokesman Jay Carney said.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the investigative House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said on CNN, "They had an obligation to look for every other way to get it before they intruded on the freedom of the press."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an emailed statement: "The burden is always on the government when they go after private information, especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources. ... On the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation."
The American Civil Liberties Union said the use of subpoenas for a broad swath of records has a chilling effect both on journalists and whistleblowers 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.
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.
The Justice Department lays out strict rules for efforts to get phone records from news organizations. A subpoena can be considered only after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the same information from other sources, the rules say. It was unclear what other steps, in total, the Justice Department might have taken to get information in the case.
A subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period," according to the rules.
The reason for these constraints, the department says, is to avoid actions that "might impair the news gathering function" because the government recognizes that "freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news."
News organizations normally are notified in advance that the government wants phone records and then they enter into negotiations over the desired information. In this case, however, the government, in its letter to the AP, cited an exemption to those rules that holds that prior notification can be waived if such notice, in the exemption's wording, might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
It is unknown whether a judge or a grand jury signed off on the subpoenas.
The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
The plot was significant both because of its seriousness and also because the White House previously had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."
The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.
The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.
Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. "The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made ... when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it," he wrote.
He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. "Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this Al Qaeda plot," Brennan told senators.