Confidential sources exposed in Justice Department’s seizure of media phone records


The Associated Press revealed on May 13 that the Justice Department secretly seized phone records for “more than 20 telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.”More than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted,” according to AP.

“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.” – AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt

The Associated Press learned of the records seizure on May 10 per a Justice Department letter. Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, pointed out that the editor and five reporters who were targeted had all contributed to an AP report about CIA infiltration of an al Qaeda group plotting to blow up an airliner with an updated version of the “underwear” bomb.

The dragnet of AP communications was the tip of an iceberg of truth-chilling investigations, we are now learning.

Some officials are now declining to take calls from certain reporters, concerned that any contact may lead to investigation. Some complain of being taken from their offices to endure uncomfortable questioning. And the government officials typically must pay for lawyers themselves, unlike reporters for large news organizations whose companies provide legal representation.

“For every reporter that is dealing with this, there are hundreds of national security officials who feel under siege — without benefit of a corporate legal department or a media megaphone for support,” said a former Obama administration official. “There are lots of people in the government spending lots of money on legal fees.” [NYT 5/25/13]

Senior government officials tried recently to get Congress to pass a law that would punish intelligence agency employee merely for contacting a reporter, essentially treating US news media like a hostile government. Andrew Beaujon at Poynter noted that the Obama administration has “brought six prosecutions under the World War I-era Espionage Act, twice as many as all previous administrations.” The President seems to view whistleblowing quite differently, though, when it occurs in other countries.

Last February Jake Tapper, then of ABC News, asked Obama press secretary Jay Carney about its praise for journalists unearthing secrets overseas: “You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States,” Tapper suggested.