Why Did the Government Secretly Obtain Two Months of AP Phone Records?

The Associated Press found itself in an interesting predicament today when it was forced to report that the Justice Department surreptitiously obtained two months of its own employees' phone records.

The records obtained by the government came from more than 20 different lines throughout April and May of last year. They detailed incoming and outgoing calls and call durations for AP staffers' work phones, general AP office numbers in New York, DC, and Hartford, Connecticut, and the number for AP journalists in the House of Representatives press gallery. Even information about people's personal phone lines were collected.

In a "letter of protest" to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the seizure a "massive and unprecedented intrusion." He continued:

There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. 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.

Though the government did not explain why it obtained the phone records in a letter it sent to the AP Friday, the inquiry may be connected to a federal investigation into a May 7, 2012 AP story about a failed al-Qaeda attack. That article contained details about an anti-terrorist CIA operation in Yemen, and the government has since been attempting to hunt down the CIA leak.

In February, CIA Director John Brennan, who was then just a nominee for the position, revealed that the FBI had once asked him if he was the AP's source for the story, something he denies. Brennan went on to call the leak "unauthorized and dangerous."

According to the AP, "Justice Department published rules require that subpoenas of records from news organizations must be personally approved by the attorney general but it was not known if that happened in this case." Other Justice Department requirements say media subpoenas should be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period." Of course, when you're an extremely powerful government entity secretly gathering information about journalists, the definitions of words like "narrowly" and "reasonably" can usually be manipulated to fit your purposes.

One particularly interesting question as we watch the fallout from all of this is how politicians and their employees will feel knowing that the Justice Department is monitoring their conversations with reporters, many of which are no doubt "off the record." As it turns out, they're always on somebody's record.