The US Department of Justice secretly seized two months of telephone records from the Associated Press (AP) in 2012. This comes amid a crackdown by the Obama administration on whistleblowers and leaks.
AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt has accused the Justice Department of infringing on the freedom of the press, after the department revealed that it had seized records from more than 20 separate AP phone lines.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters," Pruitt wrote in a letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday (13.05.2013).
"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 the AP's newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt went on to say.
The records seized by the Justice Department cover the period of April and May 2012, listing outgoing calls from the work and personal phone numbers of AP reporters. AP offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Connecticut were affected by the records seizures.
It's unclear whether the government also obtained records of incoming calls and how many journalists were affected, according to the AP. More than 100 journalists work in the offices where records were targeted.
Pruitt said the Justice Department informed the AP of the seizures in a letter received on Friday. But the notification came after the subpoena had already been issued and the phone records seized. That means the AP had no chance to challenge the Justice Department's move.
"To be secretly seizing two months of phone records for reporters and editors at the AP is a just a serious interference with First Amendment, freedom of the press, and constitutional rights that are enshrined in our constitution," Jesselyn Radack, the national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, told DW.
Leaked CIA operation in Yemen
In its belated notification letter, the department did not explain why the records had been targeted, according to the AP.
The AP did note, however, that the US Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia is conducting a criminal investigation into leaked information contained in a May 2012 story. That AP story, based on anonymous sources, detailed a CIA operation that foiled a bomb plot by al Qaeda in Yemen against a US airliner.
Five reporters and an editor who worked on the story were among those journalists whose phone records were seized. Three of those reporters had also worked on a 2012 series of investigative stories that detailed NYPD surveillance of the Muslim community in New York City.
"If the media is afraid that its sources are going to be revealed, that its method of news collection is going to be revealed, that its contacts are going to be known by the government, that is very chilling on having freedom of the press," Radack said.
Obama administration denies knowledge
The Obama administration, for its part, has denied that it had any prior knowledge that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed AP phone records.
"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department."
But Radack said it's hard to believe that the White House had no prior knowledge of the case. She represented Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower who was accused of leaking classified information to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
While the Justice Department does in theory operate independently, Radack said that President Obama knew about the details of the Drake case. At the very least, the attorney general had to sign off on the subpoena of AP phone records, she said.
"If Obama did not know, then he should fire Eric Holder as attorney general and the Justice Department should destroy all the materials that it collected from the AP," Radack said.
Crackdown on whistleblowers
The White House has taken a hard-line stance toward whistleblowers, particularly as it regards national security. The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act, passed in 1917, to pursue six cases against government officials who have allegedly leaked classified information to the press. That's double the number of all prior administrations combined.
One of the most high-profile current cases is against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the army intelligence analyst accused of handing over more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Manning, 25, has been held in pretrial detention for nearly three years. He is accused of 22 charges, including aiding the enemy, which carries a maximum life sentence.
In another recent case, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison for leaking the name of an undercover agency operative to a reporter. Kiriakou was also the first CIA officer to discuss waterboarding of terrorism suspects with the press. Waterboarding is a torture technique that simulates drowning.
"This is an expansion of the secrecy regime that was put in place by George W. Bush," Radack said. "Obama was doing this initially - going after the whistleblowers - to curry favor with the national security and intelligence establishments, which saw him as weak coming into office."
"This was a way of eventually targeting journalists," she said.