The Associated Press reports that government investigators seized two months' worth of telephone records from its staff last year and hid that fact until now.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," said CEO Gary Pruitt in a letter sent to Attorney General Eric Holder.
"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," Pruitt wrote.
Between April and May last year, the Justice Department obtained the outgoing call logs for over 20 work and personal numbers used by AP staff in its bureaus in New York, Hartford, and Washington. The news organization says it doesn't yet know if data on incoming calls and their duration were also slurped, and says it presumes telephone companies handed over the data.
William Miller, a spokesman for Washington US attorney Ronald Machen, said his office followed "all applicable laws, federal regulations and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations," while declining to comment on this case in particular. The cause of the investigation hasn't been made public, but AP suggested it may be linked with a May 7 story last year about the CIA foiling an al-Qaida plot to blow up a plane heading into the US on or around the anniversary of the death of Osama Bin Laden.
The bomb in question was reported to be a more sophisticated version of that used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (aka the failed underpants bomber) who is currently serving life without parole. The new bomb was non-metallic, making it easier to get past airport security.
At the request of the government, AP held off on publishing the story initially, after being warned it was a national security issue, but then declined to wait until the Obama administration had made an official statement on the matter. The FBI is currently investigating the leak.
"The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made ... when someone informed the Associated Press that the U.S. Government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. Government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it," said CIA Director John Brennan during congressional testimony in February.
AP said that five of the journalists involved in researching and writing the story, and their editor, were all known to have used the phone lines under investigation. In all, over 100 journalists may have used the monitored lines.
"Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power," said the director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project Ben Wizner. "Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources." ®