AP chief points to chilling effect after Justice investigation

Jeff Zalesin | Privacy | News | June 19, 2013

News of the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press telephone records has already harmed journalism by making sources more reluctant to pass information to reporters, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a speech Wednesday.

“Some of our longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren’t about national security,” Pruitt told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington. He said that in one case, a reporter could not get a routine confirmation of a fact from a law enforcement officer.

“I can tell you that this chilling effect is not just at AP,” he added. “Journalists at other news organizations have personally told me it has intimidated sources from speaking to them.”

The Justice Department revealed last month that it had secretly obtained a broad swath of records showing metadata on phone calls made by AP reporters and editors in April and May 2012, apparently in an effort to identify the anonymous source for an AP article about a foiled terror plot in Yemen published last May. The investigation covered more than 20 phone lines, including office switchboards and the AP’s main phone in the House of Representatives press gallery.

The May 2012 article revealed that the CIA had stopped a planned airplane bombing that would have coincided with the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, although a White House spokesman had denied any knowledge of a plot to commemorate that occasion with an attack. The government announced shortly after the story’s publication that it would investigate the leak, but the AP did not know that its phone records had been taken until it received a letter from the Justice Department last month.

The leak investigation is ongoing. The Justice Department has promised that it will not use the AP records for any other purpose.

Pruitt said that the probe into AP phone records violated the First Amendment and broke the Justice Department’s internal rules governing subpoenas to journalists and news organizations. According to the rules, press subpoenas must be as narrowly tailored as possible, and the department must inform the target of the subpoena in advance unless this step would compromise the investigation. When a subpoena is announced promptly, journalists can try to persuade the department to narrow its scope, and they can ask a court to intervene if they fail to reach an agreement.

The department has said that it was necessary in this case to delay telling the AP about the subpoenas until the records had already been collected from phone service providers. But Pruitt mocked that claim, saying that it would have done no harm to notify the AP when the subpoenas were served.

“How could that be?” he said. “AP couldn’t tamper with these records. We don’t even have them in our possession.”

Besides, he added, there was no risk of tipping off the Yemen leaker because the government had already announced that it was investigating the leak.

Pruitt said that in the future, the Justice Department should notify news organizations when their records are subpoenaed. He also said that the government should ensure judicial oversight of the department’s subpoena procedure, update the department’s internal guidelines to account for new technologies, pass a federal shield law and refrain from prosecuting reporters for their newsgathering activities.

“No one in this country should ever be prosecuted for committing journalism,” he said.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press led a media coalition of 51 organizations in calling for reforms in response to the seizure of AP records.

*Amy Zhang contributed to this report.