The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Justice Department secretly obtained press phone records


The Associated Press (AP) revealed Monday, May 13, that the U.S. Justice Department obtained two months of telephone records from a list of reporters and editors associated with the AP. The AP is calling this a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the way news organizations gather and operate with news.

During the months of April and May, the U.S. Justice Department accessed up to 20 different phone lines of the AP without notification of search and seizure. Gary Pruitt, the Chief Executive Officer of the AP, has demanded that the record of phone calls be returned while all other copies are destroyed.

“The implication for the First Amendment is people can come to journalists to publicize their concerns. Whether it be whistle blowers, corruption and problems the Attorney General has threatened that relationship,” said DePaul journalism professor Jason Martin. Government officials have not revealed why the records were tapped; however, the U.S. Department of Justice has admitted to searching for the source of a particular story.

The AP released an article May 7, 2012, about a foiled terror plot that took place in Yemen and was designed to stop al-Qaida from detonating an airplane bomb headed for the United States. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the release of this information marked a major threat to national security.

James Cole, Deputy Attorney General, made the decision to enter the private phone lines. Both Holder and Cole failed to make specific reasons as to why this story posed a threat to Americans and their sense of security.

“If students would like a sense of what it was to be alive at the time of Watergate, this is it,” said Bruce Evensen, a journalism professor at DePaul. “This can only have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know. The courts in the past have ruled a free press and the public’s right to know are core values protected by the First Amendment. One can hope that that is as true in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th.”

According to the AP, among those whose numbers were retained were the 5 reporters who worked on the May 7, 2012 story as well as the editor. While the phone tapping marks “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report news,” according to a personal letter from Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, the Obama Administration has investigated six other “disclosures of classified information to the media” during his administration, according to the AP.

“This might lead to less phone interviews and encourage more face to face interaction with sources. They can’t go into your brain and take out stuff … not yet,” said Daniel Gaitan, DePaul journalism graduate student. On Monday, the White House admitted that its only source of knowledge regarding the Justice Departments actions came from press releases.

“They had an obligation to look for every other way to get it before they intruded on the freedom of the press,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the investigative House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in an interview with CNN. The Justice Department requires a subpoena to be approved by the attorney general prior to gaining access to the records of news organizations.

A subpoena will only be considered if “all reasonable attempts” have been made before gaining access to the required information; however, the AP is uncertain of what happened in this particular case.  A letter notifying the AP that its phone records had been obtained was sent by the U.S. attorney general in Washington, Ronald Machen, Friday, May 10.

According to the AP, a subpoena to the media must be “as narrowly drawn as possible” and “should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period.” Pruitt defines this investigation as “overboard,” while begging the question, “How would narrowing the scope of the phone records have compromised their investigation?”

These regulations have been developed to not only avoid an infringement of the first amendment, but to also avoid impairing the function of gathering and developing news. Generally, subpoenas are submitted to news organizations prior to the initial investigation. The AP was not told about the investigation because the government believed it posed a “substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

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