The US Department of Justice secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press (AP) 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, Connecticut, and for the main number for the AP in the US House of Representatives press gallery, according to the agency’s attorneys. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
In all, the US government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May last year. 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, covering a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
In a letter of protest sent to US Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt said the US 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.
Washington would not say why it sought the records. Officials have previously said in public testimony that the US attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in an AP story about a foiled terror plot published on May 7 last year. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the US.
In testimony in February, CIA Director John Brennan said 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 on Friday, the Justice Department offered no explanation for the seizure, according to Pruitt’s letter and AP’s attorneys. 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 that 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 story.
US President Brack Obama’s 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 US presidents combined.
The White House on Monday said that other than press reports it had no knowledge of the Justice Department’s attempts to seek AP phone records.