• U.S.

Hunting a Leaker, DOJ Scans Reporters’ Calls

2 minute read
Massimo Calabresi

After conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing thousands of documents, Justice Department investigators looking for the person who leaked details of a foiled al-Qaeda bomb plot to the Associated Press in 2012 apparently still couldn’t make the case. So rather than risk failure, the feds decided to push the limits of their investigative guidelines. In a May 10 letter, the department informed the AP that it had secretly subpoenaed unnamed third parties for the phone records from 20 telephone lines used at work and home by multiple AP reporters and editors across the country. Justice overrode the rule that it must negotiate with the media before seizing call records, claiming that doing so would have posed a “substantial threat” to the probe. “The kind of dragnet that was cast against the AP is both unprecedented and quite dangerous,” says Steven Aftergood, an expert on secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “This wasn’t targeted at any reporter or source–it was a whole news organization–and it threatens the possibility of preserving confidential sources to inform the news,” he says.

For more than 40 years, Justice has had explicit power under law to subpoena journalists’ notes and phone records, but prosecutors have rarely used it. The AP story, which appeared in May 2012, revealed details of a CIA operation that had intercepted a bomb made by a dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. The affiliate had nearly succeeded several times in blowing up U.S. airliners. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records because the leak endangered American lives. “I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976, and I have to say that this is among–if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen,” Holder said on May 14.

A broad coalition of media organizations, including Time Inc., has formally protested the DOJ subpoenas.

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