Associated Press phone records seized by Justice Department

What could an Administration rocked by massive abuse-of-power scandals do to make things worse?  I know!  Pick a fight with the journalists they normally rely so heavily upon for favorable coverage!

The New York Times brings us Big Brother’s latest exciting adventure:

The A.P. said that the Justice Department informed it on Friday that law enforcement officials had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones. It said the records were seized without notice sometime this year.

The organization was not told the reason for the seizure. But the timing and the specific journalistic targets strongly suggested they are related to a continuing government investigation into the leaking of information a year ago about the Central Intelligence Agency???s disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

The disclosures began with an Associated Press article on May 7, 2012, breaking the news of the foiled plot; the organization had held off publishing it for several days at the White House???s request because the intelligence operations were still unfolding.

The “Yemen-based terrorist plot” in question was the Underwear Bomber II scheme, which involved an improved set of explosive underwear that could have been more difficult for airport security to detect.  And it wasn’t merely based out of Yemen; it was connected to al-Qaeda.  Here’s what the Associated Press wrote about it at the time, as archived by Hot Air, since the original AP page appears to be inactive:

The operation unfolded even as the White House and Department of Homeland Security assured the American public that they knew of no al-Qaida plots against the U.S. around the anniversary of bin Laden???s death. The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday???

It???s not clear who built the bomb, but, because of its sophistication and its similarity to the Christmas bomb, authorities suspected it was the work of master bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. Al-Asiri constructed the first underwear bomb and two others that al-Qaida built into printer cartridges and shipped to the U.S. on cargo planes in 2010.

Hmm.  I can see why the Obama Administration might not have been happy with that bit of AP reporting.  Al-Qaeda was supposed to be “decimated,” you know.

The ostensible reason for the Justice fishing expedition through those AP phone records was a crackdown against leaks.  The Justice Department says it would normally notify a media organization of such an investigation, unless such a warning might jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.

Fair enough, but what has caused so much outrage among critics on both the Left and Right is the broad scope of the records taken by DOJ. Obviously,  the Associated Press is not happy about it:

In an angry letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Monday, Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of The A.P., called the seizure, a ???massive and unprecedented intrusion??? into its news gathering activities.

???There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,??? he wrote. ???These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.???s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.???s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.???

Pruitt is hardly a lone voice in the wilderness, and he’s not the only one who views the Justice action as unprecedented:

The Newspaper Association of America issued a statement saying: “Today we learned of the Justice Department???s  unprecedented wholesale seizure of confidential telephone records from the Associated Press. These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.???

A spokeswoman for Dow Jones, which owns The Wall Street Journal, said the company was concerned about the ???broader implications??? of the action.

More responses, including bipartisan Congressional concern, from NBC News:

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, vowed to investigate.

“This is obviously disturbing,” he said. Coming in the wake of other disclosures about the administration???s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the IRS???s targeting of conservative nonprofit groups, he said it showed “top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wanted to know more about the justification for the secret subpoena.

“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information — especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,??? he said. ?????? I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”

Anti-secrecy watchdogs also criticized the move.

“I’ve never heard of a dragnet collection effort against a media organization like this,” said Stephen Aftergood, who tracks secrecy issues for the Federation of American Scientists. “This was not a targeted monitoring of an individual reporter. It’s a sweeping collection of an entire bureau’s communications.”

“The Justice Department???s seizure of the Associated Press??? phone records is Nixonian,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a group that advocates on behalf of whistleblowers. “The American public deserves a full accounting of why and how this could happen.”

The ACLU weights in, from CNN:

“Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power,” Ben Wizner, the head of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a written statement. “Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources.”

Some more Republican reactions, from the New York Times:

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, said: ???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.???

And Doug Heye, a spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, linked the revelation to a brewing controversy over the targeting of Tea Party groups for greater scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, saying ???these new revelations suggest a pattern of intimidation by the Obama administration.???

Like everything else his Administration has been doing wrong, this all comes as a total surprise to President Obama, who once again claims to have learned about the story by watching the news, along with the rest of us.  “Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP,” said White House spokesman  and hard-working oblivion dispenser Jay Carney.  “We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department.  Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice.”