The White House Can Definitely Expect More Questions About Justice Department’s Spying on the AP

By
Photo: Mark Wilson/2011 Getty Images

Press Secretary Jay Carney has released a statement distancing the White House from the Monday revelation that the Justice Department acquired two months of phone records from twenty lines belonging to the Associated Press and its journalists. "Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP," he said. "We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department." He added that, "Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice."

But it seems the Department isn't ready to give any actual answers yet. Press inquiries about the matter have so far been met with this statement from U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Bill Miller:

"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."

The Justice Department's rules "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," Miller said. "We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. 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."

While the Department did not provide their reasons for the phone monitoring, it is assumed to have been part of an FBI investigation into who leaked information about a thwarted Al Qaeda plot to the AP, which reported the story in May 2012.

AP CEO Gary Pruitt sent Attorney General Eric Holder a very angry letter labeling the Department's actions "a massive and unprecedented intrusion and "a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news." He went on to criticize the Department's failure to "take any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation," noting that the majority of the records collected "have no plausible connection to any ongoing investigation." 

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 news-gathering 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.

Unsurprisingly, Pruitt is not the only journalist upset by the matter. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called the news "disturbing," as did Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. Fox's Greta Van Susteren told Politico that the seizure's broadness makes it sound more "like a dragnet to intimidate the media" than it does a criminal investigation. Over at CNN, former AP staffer John King said the situation was "very chilling" and asked whether the Department did "something inappropriate here, did they possibly do something that went over legal barriers here?" And Daily Kos's liberal founder, Markos Moulitsas, tweeted, "People looking for an Obama scandal, this one spying on the AP is the first legit one." In other words: Jay Carney has another tough week to look forward to.