Exactly 10 days ago, President Barack Obama was piously telling reporters who cover him that free speech and an independent press are “essential pillars of our democracy.” On Monday, The Associated Press accused his administration of undermining that very pillar by secretly obtaining two months’ worth of telephone records of AP reporters and editors.
“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
The latest revelations are sure to pour fuel on the fire of Republican-driven Richard Nixon comparisons. They come in the wake of revelations that the IRS may have improperly scrutinized the tax-exempt status of conservative, tea party-linked groups. This might, in other words, not be a great time to announce a groundbreaking trip to China.
And the news threatens to pile fresh political woes on a second term already burdened by a painful gun-control defeat, a seemingly stalled economic agenda and Republican rage at the botched response to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
The revelations that the Justice Department may have sought AP phone records drew an angry response from Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office. “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
And Laura Murphy, a top American Civil Liberties Union official in Washington, D.C., condemned "unwarranted surveillance" of the press and urged Holder to explain what transpired "so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again.”
Holder was expected to face questions on the issue when he appears Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia did not answer a question from Yahoo News on whether other news outlets had been targeted. The spokesman, Bill Miller, did not confirm the AP allegations, but insisted in a statement that "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."
Pruitt, in his letter to Holder, fiercely disagreed.
He said the Justice Department had obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate phone lines assigned to the AP—the world's largest wire service—and its journalists. The records cover a two-month span in early 2012 and phones lines for AP in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Hartford, Conn.; and the AP workspace in 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," Pruitt wrote.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," Pruitt wrote. "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."
Pruitt called it "particularly troubling" that the Justice 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."
In his statement, Miller said DOJ 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."
And "we must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," he said. "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."
An AP news story on the Justice Department's actions noted:
The government would not say why it sought the records. U.S. officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have leaked information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
A former spokesman for Holder's Justice Department, Matthew Miller, took to Twitter to rebuke journalists and underlined that Republicans called for investigations into the leaks.
So how did people think DOJ was going to investigate classified info leaks? Reporters aren't immune from standard investigative techniques.
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) May 13, 2013
Ever since the days of his history-making 2008 presidential campaign, Obama has repeatedly cast himself as a champion of open government and reform. Aides are fond of praising "the most transparent administration in history"—a moniker that might be accurate, but mostly because of poor standards set by his predecessors. It's like being the most powerful cricket team in Alaska.
And the Obama administration has not been shy about taking steps to deny Freedom of Information Act requests on national security grounds.
Just 10 days ago, on May 3, Obama noted during a visit to Costa Rica that it was "World Press Freedom Day."
"So everybody from the American press corps, you should thank the people of Costa Rica for celebrating free speech and an independent press as essential pillars of our democracy," he said.
On Monday, Obama was scooping up cash for Democrats in New York City. His press secretary, Jay Carney, referred questions about the AP letter to the Justice Department.
"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department," Carney said.