It could not have come at a worse time, although the timing may be the least troubling aspect of recent news that the Department of Justice secretly obtained an unprecedented number of phone records from The Associated Press journalists.
Last week, the District of Columbia attorney general sent a letter to the AP informing them that the Justice Department had subpoenaed and acquired two months of phone records from 20 communication lines, including home and cell, of its journalists and editors as part of an investigation into a leak, which purportedly threatened national security.
In a strongly worded letter, AP President Gary Pruitt slammed the DOJ for its actions. “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,” he wrote.
“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
The AP says the leak in question involves a May 2012 story, which reported the CIA had foiled a planned terrorist attack on a U.S.-bound airplane. The plot, including the development of a new type of “underwear bomb,” was hatched in Yemen. At the request of the administration, AP held the story for one week, but published it one day before the administration’s announcement.
According to ThinkProgress’s Hayes Brown, who blogs on national security issues, the problem centers on AP reporting the CIA’s involvement, which may have put a double agent at risk. The AP report, Brown writes, put Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “on notice that the CIA had a window into their activities.”
In addition, the report led to other stories that gave details, which could expose the operative, Brown said.
In a press conference today, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was not involved in the decision to subpoena AP. To avoid a potential appearance of conflict of interest as the FBI interviewed him as part of the leak investigation, Holder said he recused himself from the case. The attorney general said he was confident the subpoena “conformed to DOJ regulations.”
Holder claimed the leak was very serious – one of the “top two or three” he had seen in his 40 years of being a prosecutor – and needed to be aggressively investigated.
“It put the American people at risk, and that’s not hyperbole,” he said. “It put the American people at risk, and finding who was responsible for that required very aggressive action.”
Holder also reiterated the administration’s support for press freedom and specifically for a federal shield law, which protects journalists from having to reveal their sources. Such a bill passed in the House in 2009 and died in the Senate in 2010.
However, journalists and media experts say the record seizure is unmatched in its reach. The Newspaper Guild-CWA, which represents AP workers, demanded the DOJ return “all telephone records” – including from personal phones reporters and editors.”
The Guild rejected the national security argument saying there was “no justification or explanation for this broad, over-reaching investigation.”
Calling it “egregious and a direct attack on journalists,” the Guild urged its members and the public to contact their legislators and White House to tell them to stop “this outrageous, abusive investigation now.”
The AP record seizure is the third piece of bad news in the last two weeks for the White House, after far-right Republicans orchestrated a potentially damaging hearing on the Benghazi, Libya, attacks, and revelations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party groups for special scrutiny while in the process of granting nonprofit tax status. The perfect storm of problems, which the Republicans are tying together, has put the Obama administration on the defensive, hurting the president’s ability to set the political agenda.
Not that the far right is a champion of press freedom. The Bush administration had a policy of tapping, manipulating and undermining the press. But the disturbing disclosure helps paint an unfavorable portrait of the administration perfect for right wing framing.
President Obama has pursued a hard-line policy towards investigating leaks, with critics stating some prosecutions are unwarranted; that the administration blurs the line between national security leaks and government whistle blowing: Pvt. Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks being the most prominent whistleblower/national security case among left-leaning critics.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement that he is “very troubled by these allegations” and wants to hear the government’s explanation.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information – especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” Leahy said. “I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden.”
Republican concerns about violation of AP’s rights are seen as hypocritical because when the 2012 AP story first came out, the GOP was accusing the Obama administration of leaking the Yemen/CIA information, along with two other national security leaks, in order to make the president look tough on terrorism. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., had called for a special prosecutor to investigate that alleged “scandal.”
Photo: Attorney General Eric Holder, at a press conference, denies involvement in the decision to subpoena AP. J. Scott Applegate/AP