Spying on the Press: Beyond the AP

How far does the surveillance go?


Julian Sanchez asks whether the AP scandal is an unprecedented anomaly or something worse:

It wouldn't be surprising if there were more cases like this we've never heard about. Here's why: The Justice Department's rules only say the media must be informed about "subpoenas" for "telephone toll records." The FBI's operations guidelines interprets those rules quite literally, making clear the requirement "concerns only grand jury subpoenas." That is, these rules don't apply to National Security Letters, which are secret demands for information used by the FBI that don't require judicial approval. The narrow FBI interpretation also doesn't cover administrative subpoenas, which are issued by federal agencies without prior judicial review. Last year, the FBI issued NSLs for the communications and financial records of more than 6,000 Americans—and the number has been far higher in previous years. The procedures that do apply to those tools have been redacted from publicly available versions of the FBI guidelines. Thus, it's no shocker the AP seizure would seem like an "unprecedented intrusion" if the government doesn't think it has to tell us about the precedents. And there's no telling if the Justice Department rules (and the FBI's interpretation) allow the feds to seize without warning other types of electronic communications records that could reveal a journalist's e-mail, chat, or Web browsing activity….

The real scandal may be just how much snooping on the media the current rules permit. To fully understand the AP seizures, the media and the public need a clearer picture of the rules governing all forms of spying on media—and how often such info-grabs have happened. Maybe the seizure of AP records is an extraordinary case. Or maybe the only extraordinary thing is that we're hearing about it.

Read the rest here.