Federal Dragnet of AP Phones Sparks Outrage

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Civil libertarians and press observers have called for congressional investigation and federal shield laws to protect journalists’ sources in the wake of what The Associated Press described as the Justice Department’s “massive and unprecedented intrusion” of its reporters’ phones.
     On Monday, the AP published a story with the headline “Gov’t Obtains Wide AP Phone Records In Probe,” reporting that prosecutors began snooping on reporters’ personal and work calls due to the publication a May 7, 2012 article about a foiled terror plot timed a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
     According to the wire, the government’s dragnet captured far more than the five journalists and one editor involved with that particular story.
     “In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012,” Monday’s story stated. “The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown, but more than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.”
     Though the government never stated why it sought the records, officials publicly testified that Washington’s U.S. Attorney was probing the matter due to the alleged disclosure of classified information, the AP reported.
     But AP CEO Gary Pruitt said prosecutors had “no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of telephone communications” of his publication and journalists.
     “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 reportedly wrote in a furious protest letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
     Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project cast the probe as an “unacceptable abuse of power.”
     “Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources,” he wrote.
     The AP asked for the immediate return or destruction of the seized phone records, a demand that was seconded by Christophe Deloire, director-general of Reporters Without Borders.
     “We also think that such a flagrant violation of constitutional guarantees needs to be the subject of a congressional commission of inquiry,” Deloire reportedly said. “We regret to see that the federal government has not ended the practices that prevailed during President George W. Bush’s two terms, when officials sacrificed the protection of private data and, above all, the First Amendment right to be informed.”
     President Barack Obama has waged an unprecedented crackdown against journalists’ sources.
     His prosecutors have prosecuted more than twice as many people believed to have disclosed classified information to the press than every prior president combined.
     The White House reportedly denied any knowledge of the seizure.
     The Justice Department supplied the AP with no information suggesting that the actual calls were monitored, the wire reported.
     In the wake of the scandal, Reporters Without Borders and the Society for Professional Journalists reiterated their call for a federal shield law to strengthen the similar laws already passed in 34 states.
     Both groups have previously endorsed a proposed Free Flow of Information Act, designed to place the burden on the government to prove to a judge that the information it seeks outweighs a journalist’s need to keep confidential information.
     Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, called the seizure a “shameful and outrageous” act that underlined the organization’s disappointment in the Obama administration.
     “Attorney General Holder and President Obama have once again shown by their actions that their words about transparency and government openness are hollow,” said Albarado, city editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock.

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