The Associated Press (AP) news agency says the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of its reporters and editors in what the news agency calls a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into press activities.
AP President Gary Pruitt protested in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on May 13 that the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything justified by any specific investigation.
AP said the Justice Department notified it on May 10 that records had been subpoenaed from telephone companies for 20 separate staff phone lines in April and May of 2012.
Attorneys for AP said the records listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut, and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery.
Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor at the Associated Press, described in an AP video how broad the government’s inquiry was.
"In these 20 phone lines, over two months, thousands of calls would have been made and they include a general fax number, switchboard numbers to AP bureaus that would encompass more than 100 journalists," Carroll said.
Carroll said the government's action was more than unusual.
"[Our attorneys] told us that it was unprecedented in recent years to have this level of inquiry, this many records seized, especially without the notice that is normally given," Carroll said.
It was not immediately clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.
The AP said that none of the information provided by the government suggested the actual phone conversations were monitored.
The government has not said why it sought the records.
Officials have previously said the U.S. attorney is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have leaked information to Associated Press for a May 7, 2012 story about a counterterrorism operation in the Middle East.
The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an Al-Qaeda plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
Prosecutors have sought phone records from media outlets before. But under Justice Department rules, news organization are usually notified in advance and there is a negotiation over what information can be turned over.
In this case, the government wrote a letter to the AP saying it could waive the rules on prior notice if notification might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the use of subpoenas for obtaining a wide array of records has a chilling effect both on journalists and whistle-blowers who want to reveal government wrongdoing, and accused the Obama administration of "press intimidation."
The White House said on May 13 that, aside from media reports, it had no knowledge of Justice Department attempts to seek AP phone records.
Based on reporting by AP, "The Wall Street Journal," and "The New York Times"