Justice Dept. Secretly Obtained Phone Records of Associated Press…Obama Crosses the Freedom of the Press Line

Wednesday, May 15, 2013
James M. Cole

The Obama administration seized the records of numerous phone calls made by employees of the Associated Press (AP), apparently in an effort to discover the wire service’s source on an antiterrorism story.



The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reportedly obtained two months of outgoing telephone calls made by reporters and editors. AP said it did not know if incoming calls were examined as well by federal authorities. The surveillance took place in April and May of 2012.


AP called the snooping—which entailed listening in on 20 phone lines used by its offices in New York, Washington and Hartford, Connecticut—a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the news organization’s operations. The DOJ also monitored both the business and personal phone lines of AP reporters, and the primary AP line in the House of Representatives press gallery.


“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,” AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.


Pruitt demanded that the phone records be returned and any copies destroyed.


The AP believes the intrusion came in response to its May 7, 2012, story about how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) foiled an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a plane bound for the U.S. from Yemen that year. The article relied on government sources whose identities were not revealed. AP delayed publishing the story at the government’s request, for reasons of national security. Several news organizations reported that the alleged terrorist bomber was actually a double agent working for Saudi Arabia.


In a news conference on Tuesday, Holder defended the spying, claiming that it was done in response to one of “the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.” He also claimed that he was not involved in the case and shifted the blame onto his deputy, James M. Cole. For his part, Cole defended his own actions by trying to change the focus to the number of records obtained and by saying that the records “have been closely held and reviewed solely for the purposes of this ongoing criminal investigation.”


At least two of the journalists’ cell phone records were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without informing the journalists.


CIA Director John Brennan, who denied being AP’s source when he was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, characterized the publishing of details about the terror plot as an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, David Wallechinsky


To Learn More:

Justice Dept. Defends Seizure of Phone Records (by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, New York Times)

U.S. Secretly Obtains Two Months of A.P. Phone Records (Associated Press)

Obama Administration Secretly Obtains Phone Records of AP Journalists (by Kim Zetter, Wired)

Here’s the Story the AP Suspects Led to Sweeping Justice Dept. Subpoena (by Max Fisher, Washington Post)

Under Sweeping Subpoenas, Justice Department Obtained AP Phone Records in Leak Investigation (by Sari Horwitz, Washington Post)

What is the Secret Memo that Gives Obama’s FBI Access to Phone Records without Court Approval? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI Violated Law in Obtaining Phone Records of Journalists and Others (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

FBI Used Fake Emergencies to Illegally Collect Phone Records (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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