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Justice Department targets AP phone logs

For over four years, Republicans and much of the media establishment waited for some kind of credible political controversy surrounding the Obama administration
Justice Department targets AP phone logs
Justice Department targets AP phone logs

For over four years, Republicans and much of the media establishment waited for some kind of credible political controversy surrounding the Obama administration, and for four years, folks were left wanting. Occasionally there'd be some minor hiccup -- remember when Darrell Issa compared a White House job offer to Joe Sestak to Watergate? -- but desperate efforts to manufacture a "scandal" were pointless, silly, and ultimately unsuccessful.

All of a sudden, however, if we put merit aside, the administration's critics have more controversies than they know what to do with. Some are pseudo scandals (Benghazi), some are legitimate controversies unrelated to the White House (IRS), but at a minimum, there's plenty for the political world to chew on for a change.

Indeed, late yesterday, there was a third story of interest, with reports of the Justice Department monitoring the phone logs of several Associated Press reporters. I'd encourage readers to start with Rachel's segment from last night's show, followed by this morning's New York Times report from Charlie Savage and Leslie Kaufman.

Federal investigators secretly seized two months of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press in what the news organization said Monday was a "serious interference with A.P.'s constitutional rights to gather and report the news."The A.P. said that the Justice Department informed it on Friday that law enforcement officials had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones. It said the records were seized without notice sometime this year.

The details of the story are still coming together, but based on preliminary accounts, the Justice Department didn't eavesdrop on journalists' phone calls, but rather, obtained logs showing incoming and outgoing calls, as well as the duration of those phone calls.

And why was the Justice Department doing this? In part because congressional Republicans demanded a full-scale leak investigation and DOJ officials took the request very seriously.

A year ago last week, the AP reported on a foiled terrorist plot that the Obama administration had successfully prevented. White House critics were outraged, accusing the administration of boasting about its counter-terrorism victory for campaign purposes, including leaking classified information.

Republicans accused the administration of deliberately leaking classified information, jeopardizing national security in an effort to make Mr. Obama look tough in an election year -- a charge the White House rejected. But some Democrats, too, said the leaking of sensitive information had gotten out of control.Mr. Holder's move at the time was sharply criticized by Republicans as not going far enough. They wanted him to appoint an outside special counsel, and a Senate resolution calling for a special counsel was co-sponsored by 29 Republican senators.On Monday, however, after The A.P. disclosed the seizure of the records, some Republican leaders criticized the administration as going too far.

Right. As of last night, as the story drew serious questions from the left and right, the GOP was left in the awkward position of arguing that it wanted the Justice Department to do everything possible to root out national security leaks, except what the Justice Department ended up doing to root out national security leaks.

It's best to avoid sweeping conclusions about a story that's just now unfolding, and we'll presumably know more in the near future. That said, keep an eye on some key angles.

Was it legal for the Justice Department to acquire the phone logs? More qualified observers can speak to this in more detail than I can, but as was mentioned on the show last night, the DOJ has existing regulations that allow for subpoenas for journalists' phone records. Also note, Justice probably didn't subpoena the AP, but rather, the phone company, though that hardly makes journalists feel better.

Is this unprecedented? It's not, and reporters' phone records have been subpoenaed before, though the scope of this story appears to be broader than previous instances.

Does this have anything to do with the White House? It seems unlikely. The White House isn't supposed to interfere with ongoing investigations, and it's hard to imagine anyone in the West Wing even wanting to know about the DOJ's subpoenas in a case like this.

Indeed, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last night, "Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the A.P.," adding that White House officials "are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations." There's literally nothing to suggest otherwise.