The claimed legal basis for these actions is unknown, but the threats they pose to a free press and the newsgathering process are clear
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Attorney General Eric Holder was required by DOJ regulations to personally approve efforts to obtain phone records for AP journalists.
Associated Press on Monday revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) "secretly obtained two months of telephone records of [its] reporters and editors", denouncing it as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the news gathering process. In a letter sent yesterday
to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP's President, Gary Pruitt, detailed that the phone records cover more than 20 telephone lines used by AP journalists, including their homes, offices and cell phones. He said the phones for which the DOJ obtained records also include ones at the AP bureaus in New York City, Washington DC, Hartford, and at the House of Representatives.
Pruitt wrote that "we regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news." He added that while AP is "evaluating its options", he "urgently request[ed]" that the DOJ "immediately return to the AP the telephone toll records" obtained by the DOJ "and destroy all copies." AP learned of the DOJ's acquisition of these records only after the fact, and thus had no opportunity to raise legal and constitutional objections nor attempt to negotiate to narrow the scope of the records to be sought. Pruitt's letter uses some inflammatory language as it is designed to advance the AP's case and to generate public anger, but that's entirely appropriate. The phone records reveal, at a minimum, all of the telephone numbers called by those AP journalists over the course of two months
The ACLU last night condemned
the DOJ's acts as "press intimidation" and said it constitutes "an unacceptable abuse of power". The Electronic Frontier Foundation denounced
it as "a terrible blow against the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to investigate and report the news". The New York Times'
Editorial Page Editor Andy Rosenthal called
the DOJ's actions "outrageous" while Washington Post
Executive Editor Marty Baron said
they were "shocking" and "disturbing". Even Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: "I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation."