In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth 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-Qaeda plot last year.
The AP’s president said Monday that federal authorities obtained cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor; AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn.; and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress. He called the Justice Department’s actions 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, more than under all previous administrations combined.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the AP’s president and chief executive, Gary B. Pruitt, said that 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 to 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 report about the Stuxnet computer worm, 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 news stories intended to demonstrate the president’s toughness on terrorism and improve his chance for reelection. The Republicans sought a special prosecutor, but Holder instead named two veteran prosecutors to handle the inquiries.
In the AP case, the news organization 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.
“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”
The office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia on Monday released a statement saying it is not required to notify a media organization in advance of issuing such subpoenas if doing so “would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”
“We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations,” said a statement from Bill Miller, spokesman for the office. “Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media.”
Justice Department guidelines require that subpoenas of records from news organizations must be approved personally by the attorney general. Holder’s office did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Lucy A. Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, said she thought the scope of the seizure was unprecedented. “Unfortunately, the Justice Department does this now and again,” said Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “What’s very unusual is the scope of the subpoenas.”
Republicans also quickly condemned the targeting of journalists and sought to portray the Justice Department’s actions as part of a pattern of Obama administration overreach, noting that the Internal Revenue Service was already enmeshed in a scandal over the reported targeting of conservative groups.