Two weeks after the press partied hearty with President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the administration admitted that federal authorities had secretly combed through phone records for dozens of Associated Press journalists.
If ever there has been a reason to abolish this embarrassing display of fake camaraderie between journalists and the government officials they cover, this is it.
The Department of Justice didn’t stop at authorizing subpoenas for the journalists’ office phone records. As The New York Times reported, “the dragnet covered the work, home and cellphone records used by almost 100 people at one of the oldest and most reputable news organizations,” and it went on for months. Among the targeted phone lines: AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, CT, and the main number for reporters covering Congress.
AP president Gary Pruitt called it a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”
“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 Attorney General Eric 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 roadmap to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
The next day, more than 50 news organizations — including The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post — signed a letter to the Justice Department protesting the decision to secretly obtain AP’s phone records. It read, in part:
“In the thirty years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review.”
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Washington Post, “This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who ordered the subpoenas, tried to explain away spying on a major news organization as part of a “criminal investigation involving highly classified information.” The feds were investigating leaked details of a CIA operation in Yemen that foiled an al Qaeda plot last year to set off a bomb on an airplane headed to the United States.