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AP Phone Records Scandal


Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of journalists for The Associated Press.

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The AP phone records scandal erupted when The Associated Press reported in May 2013 that the government secretly obtained telephone records of reporters and editors for the wire service in 2012. The move outraged journalists, who called the seizure a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into The AP's news gathering operation.

News of the records seizure raised questions about how President Barack Obama's administration was weighing national security with the constitutional guarantee of press freedoms and individual privacy.

Here are some common questions and answers about the AP phone records scandal.

Why did the Justice Department seize the AP phone records?

Government officials declined to specify exactly why they seized these particular records, though the U.S. attorney in Washington had launched a criminal investigation into leaks to the press in May 2012 about a terror plot that had been foiled. It was believed the seizure of phone records from The AP was tied to that investigation.

What terror plot was foiled?

The AP reported in May 2012 that the Central Intelligence Agency had unraveled plans by al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner. The bombing was to make the one-year anniversary of the killing of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

How is that story related to the phone records seizure?

The AP believes the Justice Department seized phone records of its reporters and editors because the May 2012 report disclosed details of a secret CIA operation in Yemen. CIA director John Brennan described the leak to The AP an "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."

Also, according to The AP, the records seized by the Justice Department included those of five reporters and one editor who worked on the May 2012 report about the foiled terrorist attack.

Did the government notify The AP of the seizure?

No. The Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records for more than 20 phone lines in April and May 2012. The government claimed later that notifying the wire service would have compromised their investigation.

How did The AP find out the phone records had been seized?

The Justice Department notified The AP a year later, in May 2013, that it had obtained the records.

What information was in the phone records?

The AP said the government obtained the telephone numbers used by its journalists for "the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news."

What did President Barack Obama have to say about the issue?

The White House said little about the seized of AP phone records. Obama press secretary Jay Carney said the White House had no knowledge of the seizure.

"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department," Carney told reporters.

Obama said he would not apologize for the seizure.

"I make no apologies and I don't think the American people would expect me as commander-in-chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed. And the flip side of it is, we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function."

How did The AP and other media outlets respond?

The AP and other media outlets joined together to file a complaint with Attorney General Eric Holder over the seizure of records.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt described the seizure as a "serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news."

"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.”

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