Feds grab reporters’ phone records: war on terror — or war on leaks?

The Associated Press revealed on Monday that the Justice Department secretly obtained records for more than 20 phone lines belonging to its reporters and editors. The seizures affected both personal cell phones and office lines in AP bureaus in New York, Hartford and Washington.

The AP’s CEO, Gary Pruitt, revealed the existence of the phone record seizures, which took place in early 2012, in a public letter to Attorney General Eric Holder which states in part:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters [..] We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

Various reports of the seizures have suggested they are tied to the Justice Department’s investigation of media leaks related to a CIA operation in Yemen.

According to David Schulz, a lawyer for the AP, the Justice Department may have violated Watergate-era regulations that require the Attorney General to sign off on subpoenas directed at members of the media. In a phone interview, Schulz told me that the government’s broad request interferes with the basic ability of a free press to report on the government.

While the national security aspects of the story are not entirely clear, some media outlets are framing the phone record seizures as further evidence of the Obama Administration’s hardline attitude towards press leaks, which has resulted in several high profile prosecutions in the past five years.

Leaks have become easier to trace in recent years given that so much communication involves technology that leaves virtual fingerprints of one kind or another. At the same time, national security letters and other legal trappings of the post 9/11 era mean it’s become easier for a wide variety of government and law enforcement agencies to obtain phone records without a warrant.

Government seizures of reporters’ communications also appear at cross-purposes with calls for a federal shield law to protect journalists from having to disclose their sources; if such a law were passed, the AP episode shows the government could try and determine sources by looking at reporters’ phone records.