DOJ Secretly Snagged AP Journalists' Telephone Records

Is there a rule of threes for scandals?


New acronym: Always Peeking
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Well, we're not done with the Benghazi and IRS scandals, but here, have another one. The Department of Justice secretly collected months of phone data from top newswire service, the Associated Press, and then informed them after the fact.

Via the … um … Associated Press:

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

Imagine being a whistleblower who had been granted anonymity by an Associated Press reporter or editor in exchange for providing information that might prove damaging to the administration.

Although the DOJ wouldn't tell the AP why it sought the records, the AP points to a story they published during those months:

The government would not say why it sought the records. U.S. officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have leaked information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

In testimony in February, CIA Director John Brennan noted that the FBI had questioned him about whether he was AP's source, which he denied. He called the release of the information to the media about the terror plot an "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."

Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual and largely unprecedented.

The Justice Department did have a subpoena, which was apparently sent to the Associated Press on Friday, long after the DOJ collected the information. The DOJ invoked an exception to the rule that news outlets be informed in advance of collecting phone records, claiming it would threaten the investigation if the AP knew.

Could this effort to avoid or punish the release of classified information also have a political component?  Perhaps:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

Well, let's just toss in the mix and see what happens.

(Hat tip to Reason commenter hamilton, whose link I saw just moments before it blew up all over Twitter)