Subpoena of AP Phone Records Said to Damage Press Freedom

05.16.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The government seizure of Associated Press telephone records in the course of a leak investigation undermined freedom of the press in the United States, congressional critics said yesterday.

“It seems to me the damage done to a free press is substantial,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

Pursuant to subpoena, the government captured call records for 20 telephone lines of Associated Press reporters and editors over a two month period last year.  The records are logs of calls made and received, but do not include their contents.  It was a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities, wrote the AP’s president Gary Pruitt in a May 13 letter.

The Justice Department denied that the action deviated from established policy.

“We understand your position that these subpoenas should have been more narrowly drawn, but in fact, consistent with Department policy, the subpoenas were limited in both time and scope,” wrote Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in a May 14 reply.

The  move arose from an AP story about a disrupted bomb plot originating in Yemen that led to the revelation of a classified counterterrorism operation and the existence of a valued agent. “This is among the top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen” said Attorney General Eric Holder. He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, the upshot is that any presumption of confidentiality in the source-reporter relationship has been compromised across the board, especially but not only in national security reporting.

“Reporters who might have previously believed that a confidential source would speak to them would no longer have that level of confidence, because those confidential sources are now going to be chilled in their relationship with the press,” Rep. Lofgren said yesterday.

Last year, congressional leaders harshly criticized the Obama Administration for supposedly failing to aggressively combat leaks of classified information, including in the present case.

“The Administration’s disregard for the Constitution and rule of law not only undermines our democracy, it threatens our national security,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee last year. “The Justice Department has not taken the initiative to prosecute leaks of national security secrets. Recent leaks about a foiled bomb plot out of Yemen and a cyberattack against Iran are, in the words of Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, quote, ‘very detrimental, very concerning, and hurt our country,’ end quote.”

The irony was not lost on Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

“I think we should put this in context, and remember that less than a year ago this committee’s Republican leadership demanded aggressive investigation of press leaks, accusing the administration itself of orchestrating those leaks,” he noted. “Then, members of this committee wanted the reporters subpoenaed, put in front of grand juries and potentially jailed for contempt. Now, of course, it is convenient to attack the attorney general for being too aggressive or the Justice Department for being too aggressive.”

“But this inconsistency on the part of my Republican colleagues should not distract us from legitimate questions worthy of congressional oversight, including whether the Espionage Act has been inappropriately used looking at leakers, whether there is a need for a greater press shield,… and Congress’ broad grants of surveillance authority and immunity,” Rep. Nadler said.

Rep. Lofgren said that the damage done to freedom of the press by the clandestine seizure of AP phone records “will continue until corrective action is taken.”