Justice Department Obtained AP Phone Records in Leak Investigation
In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaida plot last year.
The AP’s president said yesterday that federal authorities obtained cell, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor, AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress in what he called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities.
The aggressive investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information to the AP is part of a pattern in which the Obama administration has pursued current and former government officials suspected of releasing secret material. Six officials have been prosecuted so far, more than under all previous administrations.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President and Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said the Justice Department sought information beyond what could be justified by any specific probe and demanded that the government return the phone records and destroy all copies.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt wrote Holder. “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.”
The inquiry is one of two leak investigations ordered last June by Holder. The second involves a New York Times article about the Stuxnet computer virus, which was developed jointly by the United States and Israel to damage nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant.
The two leak inquiries were started after Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of orchestrating articles intended to demonstrate the president’s toughness on terrorism and improve his chance for re-election. The Republicans sought a special prosecutor, but Holder instead named two veteran prosecutors to handle the inquiries.
In the AP case, the news organizations and its reporters and editors are not the likely targets of the investigation. Rather, the inquiry is probably aimed at current or former government officials who divulged classified information.
But experts said the scope of the records secretly seized from the AP and its reporters goes beyond the known scale of previous leak probes.