The US Department of Justice secretly swiped two months of telephone records for some 20 Associated Press phone lines in what the head of the news outlet has called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering.
AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said in a letter sent on Monday that the government has gone beyond what any investigation might justify.
He demanded the return of the records and destruction of any copies:
"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."
Attorneys for AP on Monday said that the Department of Justice (DOJ) got its hands on outgoing calls for work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters and editors; for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Connecticut; and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery.
Congress is particularly annoyed at the intrusion into the House's press gallery: one source told Fox News that this allegation in particular "is not sitting too well" with leadership.
The AP isn't clear on whether the records included incoming calls or the calls' duration.
The DOJ seized the phone records for calls made on targeted lines in April and May 2012.
The exact number of journalists affected is unknown, though the AP says that more than 100 work in the targeted offices on a range of stories about government and more.
Although the Obama administration wouldn't say why it went after the records, the AP notes that officials have said publicly that the US attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have leaked details contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot.
That story detailed how the CIA thwarted an al-Qaeda plot to bomb a US-bound airplane.
The phone numbers of five reporters and one editor who worked on that story were included in the numbers for which the DOJ seized records.
The DOJ, offering no explanation, on Friday notified the AP of the seizure.
The AP presumes that the DOJ got the records from phone companies earlier this year, although, again, the government didn't give it such details.
Nor did the DOJ's letter suggest whether or not it had monitored actual phone conversations.
If the phone records seizure does, in fact, turn out to be linked to the leaked story about the foiled Yemen terror plot, it will be only the latest in the Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on government employees who leak national security information to the media.
In fact, according to The New York Times, the current administration has brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the press than all previous administrations combined.
The Obama administration has brought a total of six cases under the Espionage Act, which criminalizes the disclosure of information “relating to the national defense.”
Only three other known cases have resulted since the law was enacted during World War I.
Pro Publica, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, has published a timeline of Obama's crackdown here.
Lawmakers across party lines are expressing outrage over the info grab.
A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Wednesday.
For its part, the White House is throwing up its hands and claiming to be oblivious to the info grab.
According to Fox News, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney referred questions on the issue to the DOJ, claiming the White House had nothing to do with it:
"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP. We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department."
The DOJ's own rules require that subpoenas of news organizations' records must be personally approved by the attorney general.
If the DOJ did get that sign-off, it's not saying. The letter sent to the AP on Friday was sent by Ronald Machen, the US attorney in Washington.
I see this as yet another sad day for US citizens who still would really prefer to believe that the country's laws protect freedom of the press and freedom from unwarranted surveillance.
Or, as Jon Stewart from the US TV program The Daily Show sums it up... well, perhaps just watch the clip, provided by the Inquisitr.
It would involve too many asterisks, and even then it wouldn't be SFW.