The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press in what amounts to the largest government press snooping exercise carried out in a western nation.
According to the Big Story, the Justice Department obtained outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery.
Needless to say, AP is furious as it amounted to the government finding out who was talking on 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.
More than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, 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.
He pointed out that there could be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters.
The move puts matters of communications with confidential sources at risk. Lots of people talk to the media on the basis that they will not be identified. Journalists are supposed to be prepared to go to jail to protect these sources. However if the government is monitoring the phone calls of hacks then there is no confidentiality.
The government would not say why it wanted the records. Officials have previously said it wanted to know who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. That 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.
CIA director John Brennan noted that the FBI had asked him about whether he was AP’s source for the story, which he denied.
So far the Justice Department has offered no explanation for the seizure, but one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration is its paranoid investigations into classified information ending up in the media. Obama has demanded that six people suspected of providing classified information were arrested.
The message of this spying is that US reporters are not permitted to find out what the government is doing, which will play nicely into the hands of tin-foil hat wearers.
However the White House has said that other than press reports it had no knowledge of Justice Department attempts to seek AP phone records as the department makes these sorts of snooping decisions on its own.
Rules published by the Justice Department require that subpoenas of records of news organisations must be personally approved by the attorney general.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the use of subpoenas for a broad swathe of records has a chilling effect both on journalists and whistleblowers who want to reveal government wrongdoing.