The Associated Press news agency has said that the US Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records of AP reporters and offices, calling it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into newsgathering.
The US government seized records for more than 20 separate phone lines of the AP and its journalists for April and May 2012, the organization reported Monday. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder the AP chief executive Gary Pruitt said "there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters."
The AP said that the Justice Department appears to have obtained the records as part of a criminal investigation into a May 2012 story by the organization 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," the AP article said.
In his letter to the attorney general, Pruitt called the Justice Department's actions a "massive and unprecedented intrusion … into the newsgathering activities of the Associated Press."
"This action was taken without advance notice to AP or to any of the affected journalists, and even after the fact no notice has been sent to individual journalists whose home phones and cell phone records were seized by the department," Pruitt wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the incident was part of the White House's trend of targeting whistleblowers and leaked information.
"The Obama administration has been one of the most aggressive administrations in history when it comes to going after whistleblowers, and we find their conduct highly disturbing, and this is part of the pattern," Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, told the Reuters news agency.
Under President Barack Obama, the White House has charged at least six people under the World War One-era Espionage Act for disclosures of classified information to the media, more than all previous presidents combined.
Subpoenaing news organizations
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that "other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP."
The Justice Department requires that subpoenas of a news organization's records must be personally approved by the attorney general. According to the department's rules, a subpoena can only be considered after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get that information from other sources. That subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "cover a reasonably limited time period."
News organizations are usually notified in advance if the government wants their phone records. However in a letter to the AP, the government cited an exemption to those rules saying prior notification can be waived if such notice might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an emailed statement that "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," he said. "I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation."
dr/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)