The U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press in what the global news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the press, the AP said 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 telephone lines assigned to the AP and its staff in April and May of 2012. How many journalists used the phone lines during that period is unknown, but more than 100 people work in the offices where phone records were targeted, the AP said.
White Press Secretary Jay Carney said the White House had no knowledge before Monday's press reports of the Justice Department action and is “not involved in decisions” on criminal investigations, CBS reported.
NBC News, citing a senior Justice Department official, said a secret subpoena was issued to obtain the phone records without notifying the AP. The official said the step was necessary to avoid "a substantial threat to the integrity" of an ongoing leak investigation.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder Monday, AP President and CEO 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 U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia, which notified the AP of the seizure, issued a statement Monday saying it was "careful and deliberative" when dealing with issues around freedom of the press.
"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," the office said.
The office said federal investigators seek phone records from news outlets only after making "every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means," according to CNN. It did not disclose the subject of the probe.
"We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," it said. "Because we value the 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."
A Justice Department spokesman referred inquiries to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The government would not say why it wanted 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 revealed 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 switchboard numbers and an officewide 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, though 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 suspected whistleblowers, more than under all previous presidents combined.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said his panel will investigate the AP matter and promised "pointed questions" for Holder at a hearing on Wednesday, CNN reported.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the 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 AP inquiry is one of two leak investigations ordered last June by Holder, the Washington Post reports. The second involves a New York Times article about the Stuxnet computer virus, which was developed jointly by the United States and Israel to damage nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant.
The two leak inquiries were started after Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of orchestrating articles intended to demonstrate the president’s toughness on terrorism and improve his chance for re-election. The Republicans sought a special prosecutor, but Holder instead named two veteran prosecutors to handle the inquiries.
In the AP case, the news organizations and its reporters and editors are not the likely targets of the investigation. Rather, the inquiry is probably aimed at current or former government officials who divulged classified information.