Report: Government Secretly Obtained Phone Records Of Up To 100 A.P. Journalists

An interesting, albeit somewhat mysterious, report this afternoon reveals what seems to be an unprecedented intrusion into the practices of journalists as they collect news:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.

“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,” Pruitt said.

As for what could possibly justify this intrusion into the privacy of so many journalists, it appears that it’s related to a leak investigation:

The government would not say why it sought the records. U.S. officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have leaked information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

In testimony in February, CIA Director John Brennan noted that the FBI had questioned him about whether he was AP’s source, which he denied. He called the release of the information to the media about the terror plot an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”

As the article that goes on to note, the Justice Department has specific procedures that are supposed to be followed if phone and other records are being sought from news organizations. Each such request must be personally signed off on by the Attorney General, for example, and warrants to phone companies are not supposed to be issued unless the agency has exhausted all other avenues to obtain the information being sought. Whether that happened in this case is unclear, but it is fairly concerning that a Federal Judge merely signed off on such a sweeping warrant.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jr says:

    How is the AP shocked by this.

    Fourth amendment rights have been watered down so much over the years due to case after case, that it really only exist in name only.

  2. legion says:

    If only Holder’s Justice Dept cared this much about investigating crimes on Wall Street, we’d have been out of this recession 4 years ago…

  3. Jr says:

    @legion: First off the recession did end four years ago and second, unless Holder can get a bigger stimulus bills and stop austerity cuts then it really wouldn’t have much of an effect on the economy.

  4. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    May 7, 2012: AP breaks story about the US foiling al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate’s attempt to destroy a passenger plane.

    June 2012: Three GOP senators demand an investigation into the leak that fed the story.

    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t…

  5. Dave says:

    It’s Bush’s fault.

  6. KariQ says:

    This is hardly surprising, except that they actually went to a judge about it. I would think it would all be part of the warrantless wiretapping in interests of the war on terror. and therefore if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about. (No, I will never stop being upset that I was told that numerous times when I raised privacy and constitutional questions about that issue).

    In fairness, if someone leaked classified information that gave away detail that endangered the intelligence gathering abilities of the CIA, that is pretty disturbing, as it means they will have less ability to prevent future terror attacks like the one that was foiled. But the search does seem awfully broad to be explained away by that investigation.

    Really, it is disturbing just how broad the government’s gathering of information has gotten since 2001.

  7. Davebo says:

    @KariQ: Well in this case they pulled records rather than actually tapping calls.

    It seems odd though. First they couldn’t have pulled records on many reporter’s personal phone lines if only 20 lines or so were involved.

    Still it’s disturbing even considering it was done legally.

  8. jpe says:

    They wouldn’t need a warrant for this; it was just the call logs.

  9. Jr says:

    @Davebo: I don’t think you need a subpoena to get phone records.

  10. Septimius says:

    Must have been “low-level” Justice Department employees.

  11. Caj says:

    Hurry, hurry Mr Issa! This must be another investigation you can set up! We all know how you love investigations! I swear he would investigate his own Mother!!!

  12. Dazedandconfused says:


    Ratings sweeps ends on the 22nd, might be a little late.

    Justice notified AP themselves. Does that indicate a condition imposed by a judge? “OK, you can do it, but you have to notify them you did it after a few weeks” maybe?

  13. legion says:

    @Jr: Spoken like a CEO.

  14. Jr says:

    @legion: Please, I don’t care for them either. But acting like DOJ going after CEO’s would fix the economy is silly. They bigger issue is congress and stupid austerity cuts.

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    First off the recession did end four years ago

    lol., for who? Obama? I got my smokes and gas prices doubled not to mention the inflated price of everything else.

    It’s Bush’s fault

    Dude, Bush happened a long time ago, what does it matter, it was a bump in the road….

    Imagine the quotes we are gonna have from this collection of liberal PC collage kid idiots in 50 years…lol…

    And who taught the libs here how say austerity? Craps already about as lame as bigot and racist!!!

  16. legion says:

    @Jr: I totally agree that, right now, the biggest problem is Congress and the entire concept of austerity cuts. But the major direct cause of the bubble – and subsequent bust – was an absolute failure of the banking regulatory system. When Wall Streeters can buy a billion $$ worth of paper, and then pay kickbacks to a ratings agency to say that the paper is worth $2billion 6 months later, then sell it to someone else who does the same thing over and over again, while simultaneously lying to their own investors about those same assets… yeesh. If those people ever had to deal with the consequences of their own mistakes & crimes, rather than paying Congress to push the bill onto the middle & lower class, we might have a healthier & more stable economy overall.

  17. legion says:

    @G.A.Phillips: Is that even English?

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