Justice Department seizes journalists’ records

The screen on the phone console at the reception desk at The Associated Press Washington bureau, Monday, My 13, 2013.
The screen on the phone console at the reception desk at The Associated Press Washington bureau, Monday, My 13, 2013.
AP Photo/Jon Elswick

The Associated Press is slamming the Department of Justice after the agency revealed it secretly obtained the phone records of journalists at the wire service’s news-gathering operations.

The DOJ’s actions are “very distressing,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor, on Morning Joe Tuesday.

The Justice Department used a secret subpoena to obtain two months of records on 20 separate AP phone lines, the news group said Monday. The records include calls by AP reporters in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Conn., the AP said. It learned of the seizure from a letter it received on Friday from the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., Ronald C. Machen, Jr.

Machen was appointed a year ago by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate a recent spate of leaks in the administration, including classified information about a foiled terror plot in Yemen.

“I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years, and our First Amendment lawyers and our lawyers inside the AP and our CEO, who is also a well-known First Amendment lawyer,” Carroll added. “None of us have ever seen anything like this.”

“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” wrote Gary B. Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press in a letter to U.S. Attorney Eric Holder.

The Justice Department confirmed the seizure to NBC News Monday, and said it had chosen not to notify the Associated Press beforehand because it would have presented a “substantial threat to the integrity” of the investigation.

The AP demanded the records be returned and the copies destroyed:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overboard collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news-gathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s news-gathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

The White House said it had “no knowledge” of the seizure other than what it had seen in press reports.

“We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday afternoon.

Twice as many officials have been indicted in leak cases during the Obama administration, The New York Times reported.

The DOJ disclosure continued what was already shaping up to be a rough week for the Obama administration as it continues to fend off accusations of a “cover-up” on its response to the 9/11 attack in Benghazi and the IRS admitted to targeting conservative nonprofit groups for special scrutiny.

Republican lawmakers quickly jumped on the president for these revelations.

House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy said he was “deeply concerned by numerous reports of misconduct by the administration.”

And House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa pointed to Holder, demanding the AG be “held accountable for what I think is wrong” if the authorization for the subpoena did in fact reach his desk. The sign-off of the attorney general is mandated when the Department of Justice wishes to subpoena journalist records without notifying them.

Across the aisle, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in a statement he was “very troubled by these allegations” but wanted to hear the government’s reasoning.