News that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors working for the Associated Press has triggered a storm of protest from news organizations and civil libertarians and placed another potential scandal at the door of a White House already on the defensive over allegations of a cover-up in the Benghazi investigation and the IRS targeting conservative groups for added scrutiny and tax audits.
In what its top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" by the government into news gathering activities, the AP reported Monday that records were seized of calls from both office and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, and from general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Connecticut, in addition to the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery. Records for more than 20 different phone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists were seized for the months of April and May, 2012, according to AP lawyers. More than 100 journalists work in the offices where the phone lines were targeted, the news agency said.
Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington, sent notice of the action in a letter the AP received on Friday. The records were obtained through Justice Department subpoenas, though it is not known whether a judge or grand jury authorized the subpoenas, the AP said.
William Miller, a spokesman for Machen, told the New York Times that in general the U.S. attorney follows "all applicable laws, federal regulations and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations." He would not address questions about the seizure of the AP records, however. "We do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations," Miller said in an e-mail to the Times.
Machen's letter did not say why the records were taken, but government officials have previously said in public that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information for a May 7, 2012, AP story about what was believed to be a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that supposedly stopped an al-Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States. Five reporters and an editor who worked on that story were among those whose phone records wee seized, the AP said.
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Photo of AP's New York headquarters: AP Images