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U.S. Justice Department Secretly Seizes Journalists’ Phone Records
May 14, 2013
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks Tuesday, May 14 (Photo: AP)

A story is unfolding in the United States that's raising big questions about the freedom of the press and the right of the government to seize records from journalists.

The Associated Press has revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice "secretly obtained two months of telephone records" from AP editors and reporters.

The department seized the records as part of an investigation which started after the AP published a story about a CIA operation to disrupt a bomb plot.

They were taken from more than 20 lines used by AP journalists, including home, cell, and office phones, over a two-month period.

On May 7, 2012, the AP published a piece about the CIA thwarting "an ambitious plot by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden."

So far, the U.S. justice department hasn't provided any specific explanation for the scope of the seizures.

Usually, the department must notify any media body before obtaining this kind of information, "unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," according to a justice department statement.

A letter from AP President Gary Pruitt to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calls the incident "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the process of gathering news, and says "we regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news."

Speaking to reporters today, Holder defended taking the phone records on the grounds that the leak was serious enough that it "put the American people at risk," requiring "very aggressive" methods to be used in tracking down the source.

"I've been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among - if not the most serious - it is among the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen," he said.

Holder also said he had removed himself from the investigation because he had been interviewed about the leak in June 2012, and he wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole was apparently responsible for the decision to go ahead with the subpoena of phone records.

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Jay Carney speaking at the White House, Tuesday May 14, 2013 (Photo: AP)

White House spokesperson Jay Carney said President Obama was unaware of the investigation: "Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP."

The story is generating a lot of commentary. Here's what people are saying about the seizures:

On Twitter:

In the Press:

52 Media Groups Protest the DOJ's Actions

Politico reports that more than 50 major media organizations sent a letter to the justice department today in protest.

The letter says, in part, "The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public's interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case."

Obama Should Ask Holder To Resign: Michael Tomasky

Writing in The Daily Beast, journalist Michael Tomasky urges the President to ask for Attorney General Holder's resignation - but he also suggests that, based on what he knows about Obama, he doesn't expect that to happen.

Instead, he expects the President (who he calls a "Process Liberal," someone who watches things play out rather than taking immediate action) to wait and see what happens. Tomasky, who is a liberal himself, believes the President "has to show the country that he won't accept this."

Journalist Carl Bernstein: This Is "A Nuclear Event"

Speaking on MSNBC, Carl Bernstein (one of the journalists who broke the Watergate scandal) said the DOJ's actions are "outrageous, totally inexcusable," and said the situation was "an accident waiting to become a nuclear event, and now it's happened."

He also suggested the White House's denial of knowledge is "nonsense": "It is known to the president of the United States that this is the policy," Bernstein said. "To say there was no knowledge in, quote, specifically about this in the White House is nonsense. This is a policy matter and this does go to the president."

The Newspaper Guild Condemns The Department's Actions

In a statement, the Newspaper Guild, a union representing U.S. news organizations, "demands that the U.S. Justice Department return all telephone records that it obtained from phones -- including some home and cell phones - of Associated Press reporters and editors."

The statement goes on to say that "there could be no justification or explanation for this broad, over-reaching investigation. It appears officials are twisting legislation designed to protect public safety as a means to muzzle those concerned with the public's right to know."

On the Blogs:

Obama Is "Personally Obsessed With Leaks"

Ben Smith, writing on the Buzzfeed blog, says the perception that the government is "reaching further and further into individuals' lives in an era of broad new technological surveillance and power" could be "the defining critique of his Administration."

He also suggests that Obama is "personally obsessed with leaks," and that the administration has been "remarkably, unusually aggressive in targeting leaks - a policy that has surprised and pleased some critics, while alienating traditional allies."

This Scandal Is Different

Writing on TIME's Swampland blog, Joe Klein says the current AP scandal is different from previous government attempts to track down sources that leaked secrets, because the phone records were subpoena'd in secret.

He also says he won't pass judgement on the case until he knows the reasons for the department's secrecy, whether the government has changed the rules for journalists seeking covert information, and what those new rules might be.

It's Time For The Media To Scrutinize The Obama Administration More Closely

Kyle Wingfield, on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's AJC blog, writes that the media has been slowly bringing a more critical eye to "the heavy edits made by non-intelligence officials to the official talking points about the terrorist attack that claimed four American lives in Benghazi last September."

Now, Wingfield believes the press must take a new approach to the Obama administration: "If ever there was a moment for the national news media to decide to take a much more adversarial stance against the Obama administration, this would have to be it."

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