U.S. Seized Phone Records of AP Staff
By DEVLIN BARRETT
The Justice Department seized records of 20 separate phone lines used by reporters or editors for the Associated Press, in a move that officials familiar with the case said was intended to gather information for a leak investigation involving a May 2012 AP story about a counterterrorism operation in Yemen.
The Justice Department notified AP on Friday that records had been subpoenaed from telephone companies several months ago. The subpoenas covered a two-month period around the time AP wrote the story about an alleged conspiracy to detonate an underwear bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner. The plot was foiled early on because the alleged bomber was a mole for a foreign intelligence service working against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to officials familiar with the case.
It isn't the first time the government has subpoenaed reporters' records in a leak investigation, but the breadth of AP phone logs sought went beyond the searches used by the Justice Department in known past cases.
In making the government's subpoenas public Monday, AP denounced the effort as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the news-gathering activities" of the company. The AP is a cooperative that serves member news outlets and customers including websites, newspapers, and television and radio stations.
The government took records of calls received and made from 20 phone lines associated with AP or its staffers, the company said in its letter of protest to the government. These included the home or personal cellphone numbers of editors and reporters, and the office numbers of AP bureaus in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., as well as the company's phone in the press area of the House of Representatives, it said.
AP called it "particularly troubling" that the Justice Department took that step without giving the company notice, or "taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation."
The subpoenas sought the phone numbers with which the AP journalists had contact and the duration of those calls. The government notice gave no indication that the content of any calls was monitored.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Washington, whose office is conducting the leak probe, said Justice Department policies require the office to make "every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for phone records of a member of the media."
The spokesman added: "Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws."
When officials announced the leak investigation last year, they said it was necessary to protect national security.
Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union called the government's move "an unacceptable abuse of power."
Write to Devlin Barrett at firstname.lastname@example.org