Obama's Justice Department is under fire following revelations revealed by the Associated Press that the government secretly obtained two months worth of private phone records from the news agency in 2012 during what appears to be a brazen attempt to discover the source of an intelligence leak.
"Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources." - Ben Wizner, ACLU
Calling the seizure of records a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," AP itself disclosed the events on Monday after being informed by a US attorneys office on Friday:
The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.
In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
In a sharply worded letter, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt protested the government's action, saying it was a direct assault on the freedom of the press.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," the letter stated. "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.”
“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” Pruitt said.
"The media's purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance," said the ACLU's Laura W. Murphy, director of the group's Legislative Office in Washington, DC. "The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department's actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again."
So far, the DOJ has refused to explain the reasoning or a more detailed account of why the records were seized. The White House on Friday pushed off all responsibility and directed all questions regarding the matter to the DOJ.
"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP," said White House spokesman Jay Carney in a statement. "We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department."
But press freedom advocates were quick to align this latest incident with a pattern of behavior by the Obama administration in which aggressive campaigns against whistleblowers and a severe lack of transparency have made a presidency that promised openness instead one of the most secretive.
As The Guardian reports:
Although Obama was elected on a liberal ticket in 2008 and again in 2012, his administration has mounted a sustained campaign through the courts and other means against whistleblowers, particularly in relation to what it claims are sensitive intelligence matters.
Media organisations and civil rights groups complain that many of the cases it appear to have to do with administrative secrecy than matters of national security.
The Obama administration has brought six cases against people suspected of leaking classified information, which AP described as being more than under all previous presidents combined.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on protecting civil liberties in the digital age, said that US citizens and press advocates should be upset at the new revelations, but that it should be seen as an expected development given the pattern of behavior by law enforcement and government intelligence agencies in recent years.
Overall, the group said in a post on their blog, "this revelation of government's secret access to huge amounts of calling records as part of its leak investigation should not be such a surprise. The DOJ has long maintained that no one has any privacy interests in their call data records and has also engaged in unprecedented and aggressive prosecutions around government leaks."
As AP noted, "Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual and largely unprecedented."
On the specifics of the intrusion, the AP explained:
Among those whose phone numbers were obtained were five reporters and an editor who were involved in the May 7, 2012 story.
The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of leaking classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined.
Justice Department published rules require that subpoenas of records from news organizations must be personally approved by the attorney general but it was not known if that happened in this case. The letter notifying AP that its phone records had been obtained though subpoenas was sent Friday by Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.
Spokesmen in Machen's office and at the Justice Department had no immediate comment on Monday.
The Justice Department lays out strict rules for efforts to get phone records from news organizations. A subpoena can only be considered after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the same information from other sources, the rules say. It was unclear what other steps, in total, the Justice Department has taken to get information in the case.
But Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said the description of what occurred so far amounts to nothing less than an "abuse of power" and an assault on press freedom.
"Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources," he said.