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Associated Press Alleges Unjustified FBI Seizure of Reporters' Phone Records

May 13, 2013. The Associated Press (AP) released a statement on May 13, 2013 that discloses that the Department of Justice (DOJ) "secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press".

The AP wrote that the DOJ obtained records regarding "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".

Moreover, the DOJ "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."

The AP also revealed it learned of the seizure of records in a letter from that DOJ on May 10, and that it sent a letter in response to Attorney General Eric Holder stating that the seizure of AP phone records was unjustified, and demanding the the DOJ return of records and the destruction of copies.

The AP letter stats that "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".

The AP focused on this latest seizure of records. Yet, the DOJ, and other federal government agencies, have an extensive history of improper conduct directed at news reporting and the free flow of information. The DOJ, and its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), have used illegal means to obtain phone records. The DOJ and other agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), have also employed abusive subpoenas directed at reporters to force them to disclose their confidential sources.

The seizure of phone records, and issuance of administrative subpoenas, not only harms the reporters who are targeted. Some have gone to jail rather than disclose sources. It also harms news gathering regarding government and policy across the board, and the public's interest in access to information about their government. The use of subpoenas to root out whistleblowers, and government officials who disclose corruption, waste, fraud and dishonesty in government to reporters, puts all government officials on notice that their discussions with reporters may be discovered, and that they may be subjected to retaliation. This makes legitimate news gathering more difficult, and degrades the quality of news reporting.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee HJC), stated at a hearing on May 15, 2013 that the DOJ "obtained telephone records for more than 20 Associated Press reporters and editors over a two-month period. These requests appear to be very broad and intersect important First Amendment protections. Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning". See, opening statement.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute stated in a short piece that the AP matter "seems especially troubling in the context of this administration's unprecedented war on whistleblowers. It's effectively a warning that nobody who speaks to the press without White House approval -- whether they're leaking classified secrets or just saying things the bosses wouldn't like -- can count on anonymity."

Ben Wizner of the ACLU stated in a release that "Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power. Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources."

See also, AP statement of May 14.

(Published in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 2,561, May 14, 2013.)