The president of the Associated Press has lashed out at the United States government in his first interview since it was revealed that the AP was being investigated by the US Department of Justice.
More than one week after the AP announced that the Justice Department subpoenaed two months of phone records in an apparent attempt to discover the source of an intelligence leak, the president and CEO of the news agency attacked US President Barack Obama and his administration for what he considers an unconstitutional intrusion on the way journalism is conducted.
Speaking to CBS News on how the Justice Department secretly sought months’ worth of phone records, AP President Gary Pruitt said the government has “no business” interfering with journalists.
“I don’t know what their motive is, but I can tell you their actions are unconstitutional,” Pruitt said on Sunday’s Face the Nation.
On the record, the government has yet to explain why they requested the logs for 21 different phone lines used by the AP. But according to the company’s top executive, the government is doing everything in its power — and some things that aren’t — to learn the identity of the source that went to the media about a foiled terrorist attack thwarted by the CIA in 2012.
“We don’t question their right to conduct these sorts of investigations, we just think they went about it the wrong way,” Pruitt said. “So sweeping, so secretively, so abusively, and harassingly and overbroad that it is an unconstitutional act.”
In spring of that 2012, the US Department of Homeland Security and the White House independently said there was no credible evidence of a terrorist plot aimed at an American target to commemorate the anniversary of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Pruitt told CBS that wasn’t true, though, and during an interview over the weekend he explained why it was important to explain the administration’s mistake — and the mistakes the government made as a result.
“We felt the American public needed to know this story,” Pruitt told CBS, calling claims from Washington that there was no credible evidence of a terrorist plot “misleading to the American public.”
Pruitt said the AP went to the government and intelligence agencies to make sure there would not be a national security risk by publishing news of the foiled terror plot. After five days, they went live with their scoop after being told any risk had been eliminated.
“We acted responsibly. We held the story,” Pruitt said. “We held it for five days. On the fifth day, we heard from high officials in two parts of the government that the national security issues had passed, and at that point we released the story.”
In doing so, Pruitt believes the AP prompted a probe of the news agency that has crossed the boundaries of what the government can and can’t do. After the story was published, nearly two dozen direct lines, cell phones and home phones were subpoenaed by the Justice Department for offices in New York, Washington and Connecticut.
“Approximately 100 journalists used these telephone lines as part of newsgathering,” said Pruitt, who added that “thousands upon thousands” of work-related calls by AP journalists were made on those numbers.
Speaking to CBS, Pruitt said he believes the administration violated their own guidelines by gunning straight for a subpoena without trying to work out an investigation with the AP.
“The rules require them to come to us first. But in this case they didn’t, claiming an exception, saying if they had it would have posed a substantial threat to their investigation. But they have not explained why it would, and we can’t understand why it would,” pleaded Pruitt. “We never even had possession of these records. They were in the possession of our telephone service company, and they couldn’t be tampered with. So usually they would come to us, we would try to narrow the request, the subpoena, if we didn’t come to an agreement we could go to a judge and an independent arbiter could decide on the scope of the subpoena. We never got a chance.”
The result, warned Pruitt, has been a chilling effect that is already impacting the way journalists report news. “Already, officials that would talk to us and people we would normally talk to in the normal course of news gathering are already saying to us that they are a little reluctant to talk to us. They fear that they will be monitored by the government,” he said.
In the days since the AP disclosed that they were targeted by the Justice Department, other reports have surfaced as well. On Sunday, the Washington Post revealed that a Fox News journalist was investigated by the DoJ after he published classified intelligence that was believed to have been leaked by a State Department official. To investigate a June 2009 article, the Justice Department obtained the records of Fox reporter James Roser and a State Department advisor, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim.
“Rosen was not charged with any crime, but it is unprecedented for the government, in an official court document, to accuse a reporter of breaking the law for conducting the routine business of reporting on government secrets,” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported on Sunday.
Abbe Lowell, who is defending Kim on federal charges that he disclosed national defense information by going to Roser, told the Post that “The latest events show an expansion of this law enforcement technique.”
Should the government continue to corner the Fourth Estate, Pruitt warned that future results could be catastrophic for the state of free speech.
“And if they restrict that apparatus … the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know and that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.”
“It’s too early to know if we’ll take legal action but I can tell you we are positively displeased and we do feel that our constitutional rights have been violated,” Pruitt added to an AP article on the scandal.