The Associated Press revealed Monday that the Justice Department seized phone records for bureaus in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn.
Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington, notified the AP about the seizure in a Friday letter, but did not explain why the call records were taken. The records, from April and May 2012, cover 20 phone lines that are used by around 100 journalists, according to the AP.
The AP story revealing the seizure speculates that it was connected to a criminal investigation into a story about a foiled terrorist plot planned for May 2, 2012, the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
"The plot was significant," the AP's article explains, "because the White House had told the public it had 'no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death.'"
On Monday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney referred reporters asking about the seizure to the Justice Department, according to a press pool report sent at 5:30 p.m. EDT by Washington Post reporter David Nakamura.
The Justice Department, however, refused to comment on the case. "This is being handled entirely by the U.S. Attorney in D.C.," a member of the Justice Department's public affairs team told U.S. News. She declined to say if Holder would respond to the letter.
Calls to the U.S. Attorney's press office were answered by voicemail.
"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 Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, in a statement. "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.”
"Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power," added Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
The AP exposed the record seizure on the same day that Reason reported a totally redacted government response to an ACLU FOIA request regarding warrantless text message searches.
President Barack Obama has previously promised that his administration would be the most transparent in history.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt wrote:
Dear General Holder:
I am writing to object in the strongest possible terms to a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press.
Last Friday afternoon, AP General Counsel Laura Malone received a letter from the office of United States Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. advising that, at some unidentified time earlier this year, the Department obtained telephone toll records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists. The records that were secretly obtained cover a full two-month period in early 2012 and, at least as described in Mr. Machen's letter, include all such records for, among other phone lines, an AP general phone number in New York City as well as AP bureaus in New York City, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Connecticut, and at the House of Representatives. This action was taken without advance notice to AP or to any of the affected journalists, and even after the fact no notice has been sent to individual journalists whose home phones and cell phone records were seized by the Department.
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.
That the Department undertook this unprecedented step without providing any notice to the AP, and without taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation, is particularly troubling.
The sheer volume of records obtained, most of which can have no plausible connection to any ongoing investigation, indicates, at a minimum, that this effort did not comply with 28 C.F.R. §50.10 and should therefore never have been undertaken in the first place. The regulations require that, in all cases and without exception, a subpoena for a reporter's telephone toll records must be "as narrowly drawn as possible.'' This plainly did not happen.
We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news. While we evaluate our options we urgently request that you immediately return to the AP the telephone toll records that the Department subpoenaed and destroy all copies. At a minimum, we request that you take steps to segregate these records and prohibit any reference to them pending further discussion and, if it proves necessary, guidance from appropriate judicial authorities. We also ask for an immediate explanation as to why this extraordinary action was taken, and a description of the steps the Department will take to mitigate its impact on AP and its reporters.
Given the gravity of this situation, I look forward to your prompt response.
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Updated 05/13/13: This article has been updated to include reaction from the ACLU.